A look at the pros and cons of reducing the size of national monuments
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A look at the pros and cons of reducing the size of national monuments

December 5, 2017

In a speech on Monday, President Donald Trump announced that he signed two proclamations reducing the size of two national monuments in Utah. As noted in our analysis of the media coverage, some outlets portrayed the decision in dramatic terms and offered little factual information about it. Similarly, they emphasized the “historic” nature of these changes, without providing comparative data to help understand their significance. Below we explore potential pros and cons of the decision, as well as how Trump’s changes compare with similar moves made by his predecessors.

What’s the story behind Trump’s National Monument announcement?

In April, President Trump issued an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments created since 1996 with designations of more than 100,000 acres, or areas Zinke determined were designated or expanded “without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

The order instructed Zinke to determine whether each designation or expansion conformed to the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which requires that land reservations not exceed “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

The first publicly announced changes to national monuments based on Zinke’s study came Dec. 4, when Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in two presidential proclamations.

The original proclamations that created these monuments, issued by former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, cited the Antiquities Act and its “smallest area compatible” requirement. Zinke’s review of the land determined that certain sections of the monuments either did not need protecting, or were already protected by other statutes.

What are some of the pros and cons of reducing the designations?

PROS: In his speech, Trump called some designations under the Antiquities Act an “egregious abuse of federal power,” saying that locals “know best” how to care for and protect their land. Returning the areas’ management to the state may have positive fiscal and economic effects, and could also inspire new and existing local preservation initiatives.

A Fox News op-ed cites the following possible benefits:

  • Eliminating “strained” land management budgets and limited public access to the areas.
  • Redirecting funds from monuments to national parks and the National Park Service, which reportedly has a $12 billion “maintenance backlog” of infrastructure that cannot be repaired or replaced.
  • Authorizing responsible resource extraction from areas that don’t meet objective criteria for preservation, which could improve local economies and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign imports.
  • Lessened competition between designations’ management plans for funding.
  • Agencies that have “successfully” managed undesignated areas, such as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, may do so again.
  • Greater access to elderly and disabled visitors due to the lifting of motorized access restrictions.
  • Restoring access to hunting, fishing, camping and outdoor recreation.

CONS: The articles we analyzed noted that scientists have expressed concern about the reductions to national monuments, namely because the changes could limit or disrupt scientific research and discoveries, particularly in the long term. The articles also included some concerns voiced by environmentalists and Native American tribes, as noted in our Raw Data.

An article by Climatewire republished in Scientific American cited an analysis by the Conservation Science Partners that found that both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante had the highest incidences of ecological “intactness and connectivity” among 22 monuments assessed (“intactness” refers to the intensity and footprint of modification by human activities, and “connectivity” refers to the degree to which a landscape facilitates or impedes the flow of organisms and ecological processes). Changes to the monuments’ demarcations could jeopardize those qualities. Climatewire’s article also provided more specifics on possible negative outcomes of reducing the size of the monuments, including:

Reducing the landscapes’ “physical resilience” and disrupting wildlife migration corridors (“physical resilience” describes a system’s capacity to respond, recover and evolve from challenges).

  • Releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, should coal deposits be accessed and used within the monument boundaries.
  • Limiting or disrupting existing studies on:
    • how management policies and rangeland activities, such as grazing, affect the related ecosystems;
    • desertification conditions in grassland ecosystems and ways to avoid it;
    • archaeological and paleontological artifacts;
    • data from middens (packrat dens), which help to understand past climates and ecosystem changes;
    • endemic species and their habitats, which are unique to Bears Ears.

An article by National Geographic also noted that opening the monuments to greater tourism could bring more of the damage already observed, such as “tourists pocketing potsherds, campers using century-old Navajo hogans [sacred homes] for firewood; graffiti on ancient rock panels; all-terrain vehicles blasting through ancestral burial grounds.”

How “monumental” are Trump’s changes?

Although President Trump removed a larger amount of federally-designated land from monument sites than previous U.S. presidents, seven of his predecessors have used their authority to reduce acreage included in national monuments. These details are listed below.

Note: Land additions are listed only in cases in which the president reduced and added land to the same national monument. Additions made to separate national monuments during a president’s time in office are not included.

President William Howard Taft (1909 – 1913)

  • Reduced Arizona’s Petrified Forest from 60,776.02 to 25,625.60 acres.
  • Eliminated 160 acres from Mount Olympus National Monument.

Total reduction: 35,310.42 acres.

President Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921)

Total reduction: about 305,280 acres.

President Calvin Coolidge (1923 – 1929)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 – 1945)

  • Eliminated about 71,854 acres from the Grand Canyon.
  • Eliminated 52.27 acres from Wupatki National Monument, Arizona.
  • Excluded “a strip of land situated in section 3, Township 1 North, Range 24 East, and sections 25, 34, 35 and 36, Township 2 North, Range 24 East, Boise Meridian, Butte County, Idaho” for a highway right-of-way, according to Monuments Matter.

Total reduction: about 71,906.27 acres, not including the highway-designated land.

President Harry S. Truman (1945 – 1953)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 – 1961)

  • Eliminated about 24,925 acres of land and 4,193 acres of water from Glacier Bay National Monument, Alaska.
  • Eliminated about 211 acres from Colorado National Monument; he added 120 acres to the monument as well.
  • Eliminated about 470 acres from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument, Colorado.
  • While he added about 480 acres to Arches National Monument in Utah, he also eliminated about 720 acres.

Total reduction (less acreage additions): 29,919 acres.

President John F. Kennedy (1961 – 1963)

  • Eliminated about 320 acres from Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah; he also added 5,236 acres to the monument.
  • Eliminated about 3,925 acres and added about 2882 acres from Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico.

Total reduction (less acreage additions): none; an overall addition of 3,875 acres.

President Donald J. Trump (2017 – present)

  • Eliminated 1,150,860 acres from Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.
  • Eliminated 861,974 acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Total reduction: 2,012,834 acres.