Most Americans probably haven't heard of the Antiquities Act and, admittedly, it sounds, well, dated. So when President Donald Trump recently warned that his predecessors in Washington had used this law to create a "massive federal land grab" and that it was "time to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all the states, the people of the United States," there probably was some cheering to be heard, particularly in Salt Lake City.
Unfortunately, what President Trump described is not even close to what's been happening with the Antiquities Act, a law that dates to Theodore Roosevelt's time in the White House and has been used by presidents from both parties to create 170 national monuments, preserving and protecting such important sites as the Grand Canyon, Devils Tower and Fort McHenry. For starters, it can't be a "massive federal land grab" given that the law applies only to land that is under federal control in the first place. Private land can't be "grabbed," nor can state-owned land. It's simply a matter of how well existing federal land is protected from development -- to be designated a monument likely means that the U.S. Department of the Interior won't be leasing it for mining or logging or allowing similar activities.
That certain ranchers, miners, oil and gas drillers or logging companies object to such designations is nothing new. But it's an outright lie to suggest that local residents have had no input on such decisions. Even in what might be the most controversial such choice of President Barack Obama's term in office, the designation of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah last December, there was extensive consultation.
It's also highly misleading to imply the American people are fed up with all these monuments or want to see federal land turned over to the private sector. Polls show Americans want public lands protected -- more than 9 out of 10 favor that, according to a 2016 study by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Of course, President Trump being President Trump, the executive order he signed late last month doesn't actually rescind any monument designations. It orders Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the 25 designations made since 1996. Experts question whether the law allows monuments to be un-designated, something that's never actually happened. Instead, the Trump investigation could lead to a potential shrinking of existing monuments (something that has happened before) or might be used as evidence to convince Congress to amend the 101-year-old law.
Secretary Zinke has pledged to keep an open mind ... but given the misleading rhetoric from Trump and others during the announcement, it's difficult to believe that the administration will come down on the side of conservation and the broader national interest when the president is already describing past actions as abusive.
Commentary on 05/12/2017
Print Headline: Protecting public lands isn't 'abuse'