Shortly after he assumed office, President Donald Trump ordered a review of 27 recently designated national monuments, including Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine.
Five months later, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke offered a vague report that called for the shrinking of four monuments in the western U.S. and for management plan changes at 10 monuments to emphasize “traditional uses” such as logging, farming, mining and commercial fishing at marine monuments. Those activities are typically restricted on national monument lands.
Zinke left the Maine monument intact but called for “active timber management,” which he did not define.
Newly revealed documents show that Trump’s Department of Interior had only one metric in mind when it reviewed the monuments — how much could they be worth if they were stripped of trees, opened to more grazing and minerals, oil and gas extracted from beneath them. In this review, monuments were not special places meant to be preserved. Instead, they were seen as a source of money from what could be extracted from them.
The biggest source of revenue from public lands — tourism — was ignored. Information that showed monument designations did not harm logging or commercial fishing were ignored. Warnings that reduced protections would lead to the destruction of important archeological sites were also ignored.
[Opinion: Evidence for public lands right in front of our eyes]
The focus was solely on what could be extracted from these mountains, canyons and undersea preserves if protections were eased. This should alarm all Americans. It has prompted Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Chellie Pingree, to ask the department to justify such a one-sided analysis.
Department officials worked hard to keep this one-dimensional review criteria hidden from the public, The Washington Post reported this week. Journalists and advocacy groups received thousands of pages of emails related to the monument review through requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
The department posted some of the documents online, but removed them from its website last week.
One member of the review team suggested removing language from a memo that showed that commercial fishing vessels caught less than 5 percent of their landings from areas within the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, the first marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
The information “undercut the case for the commercial fishing closure being harmful,” the member wrote.
In another instance, an assessment from the Bureau of Land Management that the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah had not impacted timber harvesting in the area was deleted from documents related to Zinke’s review.
The bureau’s conclusion that creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had increased the number of archeological finds, and better protected them, was also removed. Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a new type of armored dinosaur that had been unearthed in the Utah monument, which was shrunk by the president after Zinke’s review.
Such redactions were suggested by the department’s Freedom of Information officers because they revealed the strategy behind the monument review, The Post reported.
With its conclusions so predetermined Zinke could have saved American taxpayers a lot of money by not visiting the monuments and pretending to listen to local residents and businesses. He could have skipped this veneer of interest in all points of view and written his review from his Washington office.
More concerning is the department’s — and administration’s — focus on extraction of resources such as coal, oil and water over the protection of fragile and inspiring landscapes and cultural and archeological relics.
As Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent advocate for conserving significant swaths of the American landscape, warned, once these landscapes are ruined and all the resources used up, there is no restoring them.
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us,” said Roosevelt, who designated 18 national monuments, many of which, like the Grand Canyon, became national parks.
This, not simply making money from treasured and historic lands, should drive the administration’s stewardship of America’s lands and natural resources.
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