Late last year, President Trump and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a decision to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah by 2 million acres. While the move was broadly applauded by Utah’s elected officials and local citizens, the mainstream media cried foul. The New York Times called it “the looting of America’s public land,” while the Washington Post said the president’s declaration would “aggressively undermine the measures his predecessors took to preserve precious lands and resources.”
The truth is, President Trump made the right decision – one that protects federally owned lands and benefits local workers and economies. Here are three things that must be understood to appreciate this decision:
1. The federal government owns approximately one of every three acres in the United States.
In states west of the Mississippi River, federal ownership is approximately one of every two acres. In Utah, the federal government owns almost 70 percent. This does not mean the land is left off limits and unproductive. In this case, much of the land is available for citizens to produce their livelihoods and enjoy recreational activities such as letting their cattle graze, timber harvesting, fishing and hunting, resource development, motorized recreation, and tribal collection of wood and herbs. In other words, the lands are publicly owned and the public has access to much of them.
2. The Antiquities Act of 1906 severely restricts U.S. citizens’ enjoyment of “National Monuments.”
Within public lands, the Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the American president to designate land having historic or scientific interest as a “National Monument.” This can only be done on federal land by presidential proclamation, and the area protected is to be the smallest compatible. The first area to be designated as a national monument was Devil’s Tower, proclaimed by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 (and later featured in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”).
Land use within the borders of a national monument is severely restricted, eliminating the multiple uses previously mentioned that are enjoyed by the public. Currently, our nation is home to 117 designated “National Monuments.”
3. Presidents Obama and Clinton abused the Antiquities Act and weakened rural economies.
Over the years, past administrations have abused the Antiquities Act by designating new monuments with expansive boundaries or enlarging the borders of existing national monuments. Such sprawling designations restrict traditional uses of the land and weaken rural economies.
The two national monuments in the announcement originally were designated with borders that clearly overreached the narrow requirements of the Antiquities Act’s expressed intention for the area to be the smallest area compatible. President Trump’s actions modified the size of the two Utah monuments to fulfill this original intent. Thus, the Bears Ears National Monument (designated by President Obama) will be reduced in size from approximately 1.3 million acres to 228,000 acres. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (designated by President Clinton) will be reduced from nearly 1.9 million acres to roughly 1 million acres.
Matt Anderson, federalism policy director at the Utah-based Sutherland Institute, also heads the Coalition for Self-Government in the West. He noted, “President Trump’s decision to reduce these monuments allows us to still protect those areas that need protection, while at the same time keeping the area open and accessible to locals who depend on this land for their daily lives.”
While many would prefer that states be given control over federal lands, the president’s decision was widely applauded for opening public lands back to the people. JMI joins in this chorus of applause, for it is both appropriate and richly deserved.
Dan Peterson is the director for the Center for Property Rights at The James Madison Institute.