1.4 million weigh in on Trump’s review of nat'l monuments
WASHINGTON – An Interior Department plan to review recently designated national monuments has drawn more than 1.4 million public comments, a “phenomenal” number that one advocate said he had not seen in 25 years of environmental activism.
The comments came in response to President Donald Trump’s order that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke review the use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments in recent decades, what the president called “another egregious abuse of federal power.”
On the list are the Marana-area Ironwood Forest monument, the Sonoran Desert National Monument near Gila Bend, and the Grand Canyon - Parashant and Vermillion Cliffs national monuments in this state. Also included are Bear's Ears and others in Utah, and nearly two dozen others across the United States.
Last month, a group of Republican congressman — including three from Arizona — called on the administration to reverse the designation of the four monuments here, as well as shrinking or de-listing other monuments across the nation.
Some activists worry that, despite the outpouring of comments on the proposal, administration officials may already have their minds made up.
Wayne Y. Hoskisson, the wilderness and public lands co-chair of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Trump administration is acting under pressure from congressional Republicans to take a harder tack on deregulation.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would be concerned about, say, overturning the Ironwood Forest in Arizona,” he said. “That seems like an incredibly appropriate designation for that area.”
The Ironwood Forest was designated a national monument in 2000 using the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that gives the president the authority to name monuments to protect natural, cultural and archeological resources that might otherwise be endangered.
It and three other Arizona monuments are covered by Trump's order. All were created by President Bill Clinton in 200-2001, and all are among those the GOP congressman are calling to eliminate.
The executive order does not name specific monuments, but directs Zinke to look at any that were designated or expanded under the act since 1996 “without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.” The April 26 document also does not order immediate changes at any monument, but required Zinke to file his findings within 120 days.
That set off the influx of public comments usually unheard of for federal proposals, and opposition from Southern Arizona officials, among others.
Sharon Bronson, the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, said she is "astounded" that U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs and Trent Franks called for the elimination of four monuments in the state, including the Ironwood Forest They "assert outright falsehoods," she said.
As first reported by TucsonSentinel.com on July 4, the three joined several others in their party in calling on Zinke to rescind the declarations of the monuments, which were established by previous presidents.
They said that the Ironwood monument near Tucson restricts possible mining operations, and that the Sonoran Desert monument, 100 miles from the border near Gila Bend, "jeopardizes national security" by limiting Border Patrol agents.
"I was frankly astounded" that the three recommended elimination of the monuments, Bronson said in her letter, calling the GOP move "disingenuous and lacking in any local constituent input."
Trump had bashed the administration of former President Barack Obama for putting hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under federal protection through what he called the “abuse” of the act.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up billions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice,” Trump said before signing the order. “Today, we are putting the states back in charge.”
But Adam Sarvana, the communications director for Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Zinke’s mind was most likely already made up.
“If he were really interested in public input on the ground, he would have gone to them,” Sarvana said.
He said the comment invitation is a way for the administration to allow the public to participate but carry out their agenda regardless.
The public is “overwhelmingly against” what the Trump administration is doing, Sarvana said.
In the GOP letter to Zinke, Gosar, the Prescott Republican who leads the Congressional Western Caucus group, blasted the previous administration.
"With the stroke of a pen and the blind support of out-of-state extremist groups foaming at the mouth to lock up lands to serve their own agenda, President Obama trampled the will of the people and ignored the wisdom of local stakeholders" in creating monuments, he wrote.
Obama's "massive land grabs and wrested millions of dollars in economic activity from western states," said Biggs, a Gilbert Republican. "The 1906 Antiquities Act has also become the catalyst for radical environmentalist groups seeking to prevent Americans from having access to the nation's natural resources."
Bronson pointed to what she said were numerous flaws in the Republican's review.
The group "seems to have little understanding of, or interest in, how these monuments are actually managed on the ground or what activities are allowed on monument lands," she said. "Intentionally or otherwise, the ewe asserts several outright falsehoods in its justification for rescinding the (Ironwood monument), relying on incorrect information regarding its management, which frankly calls into question all of the recommendations made" by the GOP congressmen.
As reported by TucsonSentinel.com earlier this month, although the Sonoran Desert National Monument sits astride Interstate 8 near Gila Bend, about 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the Republican congressmen cited its "proximity to our nation's southern border" as presenting "a unique challenge as it pertains to land management." The Border Patrol must deal with "bureaucratic red tape" in seeking permission from other agencies to operate on the monument, they said.
"This designation jeopardizes national security for the sake of legacy building," they wrote.
Bronson blasted the Republican trio, saying "in addition to having no meaningful understanding of how these monuments are managed, I am also appalled that the CWC Arizona representatives have so little knowledge of the geography of the state they represent and the actual locations of these monuments."
That monument "does not in any way "abut" the border, as the CWC misleading statements imply," she wrote to Interior Secretary Zinke. "Unless the CWC also wants to cede the Gadsden Purchase back to Mexico, this clear error is seemingly designed to mislead the public about this monument designation and undermine its broad and unwavering support in the local community."
The Center for Western Priorities said it selected 1,000 of the public comments at random earlier this month – when federal officials had processed just over 650,000 of the comments – and found that more than 98 percent favored leaving the monuments alone. Hoskisson pointed to surveys of Utah residents that found 60 to 70 percent opposed changes to the monuments’ status.
But Hoskisson said despite his apprehension, the fact that the administration is inviting comment is a sign that the content of Zinke’s final report is not a foregone conclusion.
“There is some hope, but on the other hand, this is a political process,” he said. “There’s going to be some politics at play. So who knows what he’s going to do?”
TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed to this report.