As the deadline approaches for United States Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to make his recommendation to President Donald Trump regarding national monuments designated over the last 20 years, Americans are desperately reaching out to the secretary in an attempt to have their voices heard.
Among those voicing their opinions are eight professors from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Robin Kundis Craig, Erika George, Robert Keiter, James Holbrook, Nancy McLaughlin, Arnold Reitze, John Ruple and Alexander Skibine joined 63 other professors who specialize in environmental and natural resources law in signing a letter to Zinke outlining the reasons they oppose the administration taking actions to reduce or undo national monuments. By their logic, this decision is outside of Trump’s powers.
“President Obama was acting within the authority delegated to him by Congress when he created the monument,” Ruple said. “I believe that revising or rescinding a national monument is beyond the president’s authority.”
In President Trump’s executive order, he said that he may take presidential action to modify the monuments. The petition argues that this would be unconstitutional.
Article 4, Section 3 of the Constitution says that “Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” When Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, they delegated part of this authority to the executive branch — to designate national monuments. According to the letter, Congress retained the power to diminish or abolish a national monument for itself.
The professors further support their argument by pointing to the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. It says that all requests for withdrawal of public land must be submitted to and approved by Congress. The petition says that the act indicates that the executive branch cannot modify or revoke a national monument.
The letter goes on to cite the opinion that Solicitor General Paul Clement presented to the Supreme Court in 2005 in Alaska v. U.S. “Congress intended that national monuments would be permanent,” said Clement. “They can be abolished only by an act of Congress.”
Beyond challenging President Trump’s authority, the signees point out several other issues they have with his executive order and public comments. Trump has called some of the national monuments designated over the last 20 years a “massive federal land grab.” The letter contends that this isn’t the case and that the Antiquities Act applies only to land already owned by the federal government. They write that the president cannot declare a national monument on state or private land, and point to the example of Bears Ears National Monument. The Bears Ears Proclamation says that it applies only to “lands owned or controlled by the Federal Government.” The letter further argues that there isn’t a limit to the acreage of a national monument in the Antiquities Act.
Utah’s top officials have been some of the most vocal critics of monuments declared under the Antiquities Act, including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. The letter claims, however, that these monuments bolster the state’s economy, and quotes the Utah Office of Tourism’s website in describing the importance of Bears Ears National Monument.
“This 1.35-million-acre national monument covers a broad expanse of red rock, juniper forests, high plateau, cultural, historic and prehistoric legacy that includes an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts left behind by early Clovis people, then later Ancestral Puebloans, Fremont culture and others,” writes the Utah Office of Tourism. “Just as important to the Bears Ears designation are the modern-day connections that the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation and other tribes have to this land.”
The executive order requires that Secretary Zinke make his preliminary recommendation to President Trump before June 10. He then must make a final recommendation before Aug. 24. Ruple hopes that their letter made it to the secretary’s desk.
“It is beyond question that the proclamation creating Bears Ears National Monument identified a wealth of unique and precious resources that qualify as ‘objects of historic and scientific interest’ throughout the reserved federal lands,” reads the letter. “If the new administration believes that those objects and the lands containing them do not warrant protection, or that factors external to the Antiquities Act should be considered in evaluating national monument designations, the administration must turn to Congress for a remedy.”