Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent recommendation to review the status of 27 national monuments, “shrink” the size of California’s Bears Ears National Monument, and “privatize” other national parks has generated ferocious opposition from conservation activists, organizations and Native American groups.
The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) mocked U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke’s assertion that he made the Bears Ears recommendation after a journey “by air, by car, by foot, and by horseback.”
“Despite taking more modes of transit than Steve Martin and John Candy, Zinke didn’t make any specific proposals about the ideal size or borders of the monument,” an NRDC press release stated. “If he got to know the area in such painstaking detail, why is he coming back with nothing more than ‘make it smaller?’”
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition called Zinke’s proposal “an affront to Indian people all across the country.”
Earthjustice spokesperson and attorney, Heidi McIntosh, stated in a press release that the environmental group’s attorneys are readying a lawsuit to challenge the recommendation.
“Make no mistake: unilaterally shrinking the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument would not only be a slap in the face to the five sovereign tribes who share sacred ties to this land, it would violate both the Antiquities Act and the Separation of Powers doctrine. If President Trump follows Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to shrink the boundaries of these cherished lands, we will see him in court,” said McIntosh.
The Bears Ears recommendation is just the first part of Zinke’s highly controversial review of 27 national monuments, including six in California.
Zinke also announced plans to privatize the management of other units in the national park system, as part of the Trump administration’s proposal to cut $360 million from the National Park Service (NPS) budget.
For longtime local park advocates and activists, Zinke’s effort to downsize and privatize national parks and monuments evokes a sense of deja vu, because the same scenario played out on the local stage in the 1980s, when Secretary of the Interior James Watt, appointed by newly elected President Ronald Reagan, sought to de-authorize and defund the newly created Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA).
In May of 1981, Watt launched an investigation into land acquisitions in the newly created SMMNRA and four other national parks: Fire Island National Seashore on Long Island, New York; Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan; and the Cuyahoga National Recreation Area near Cleveland, Ohio.
In a May 23, 1981 interview in the New York Times, Watt said “he would not disclose the nature of the information that led him to order the investigation because ‘it may be off the wall and specious and only cause embarrassment to all.’”
The article reported that Watt stated: “We have had suggestions that compel me to commence an investigation to see why the boundaries of several of these park areas have been drawn where they have been drawn. Were they drawn for the benefit of the parks, or were they drawn for the benefit of the neighbors of the parks?”
The NY Times article reports that a memorandum was prepared by G. Ray Arnett, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks, requesting “the director of the National Park Service prepare a description of the procedures necessary to divest the park system of the Cuyahoga and Santa Monica National Recreation Areas.”
The National Parks and Conservation Association called the memo a “hit list.” SMMNRA activists prepared for battle and, ultimately, public outcry helped save the SMMNRA.
The park was created by an act of Congress in 1978 and funded through 1980 with money allocated by the Carter Administration. Any plan to de-authorize the park would have required congressional approval, but it was a relatively simple matter to eliminate funding for the park.
Money for maintenance and new acquisitions was eliminated. Watt is quoted stating the funds generated from offshore oil drilling leases would be sufficient to cover operating costs and that the properties on the priority acquisitions list were unnecessary.
A Los Angeles Times article dated May 21, 1981, stated that 36,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains are already in public ownership, such as Malibu Creek State Park, Topanga State Park and Point Mugu State Park. The rest of the land will remain in private ownership.”
The cut funding was never fully restored but the plan to de-authorize the SMMNRA was eventually abandoned. Watt’s local legacy has been described as an unnecessary loss of key habitat, and cultural and recreational resources. On the national level, William Turnage, the executive director of the Wilderness Society described Watt’s three-year tenure at the Department of the Interior as “a reign of terror.”
However, the SMMNRA survived, in large part through the efforts of activists and with the support of some of California’s elected officials, including park proponent Representative Anthony Beilenson, who brought the fight to save the park to Washington.
Cuyahoga Valley, the other national recreation area singled out for de-authorization by Watt, also survived. Today it’s a 32,572-acre national park, the only one in Ohio.
Watt’s push to develop and sell off federal lands for energy, mineral, timber and other industrial and commercial use, is echoed 30 years later by Zinke, but with the advent of social media, the fight to save parks like Bears Ears has become an international effort, bringing together concerned citizens and conservation organizations in ways not possible in the 1980s.
Earthjustice, the NRDC, Sierra Club, and a host of other regional and national conservation and Native American advocacy organizations are prepared to take the Trump administration to court.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has vowed to protect the six California national monuments on Zinke’s list: Berryessa Snow Mountain, Carrizo Plain, Giant Sequoia, Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and San Gabriel Mountains.
“Any attempt by the Trump Administration to reverse decisions past presidents have made to safeguard our most treasured public lands is as unwise as it is unlawful,” Becerra stated in a press release. “As the Attorney General of California, I am determined to take any and all action necessary to protect the American heritage which has become part of our monument lands.”
Becerra’s stance is echoed by park supporters nationwide. Activists are mobilizing everywhere. According to the environmental news service EcoWatch, the U.S. Department of the Interior received a staggering 685,000 comments from the public during a 15-day comment period last month in support of Bears Ears National Monument, the flashpoint for the current battle over public lands.
The DOI is seeking comments on the National Monuments issue through July 10. More information, including a full list of the monuments and contact information is available at: regulations.gov/document?D=DOI-2017-0002-0001.