Ep. 14: Will This Land Still Be Your Land?

Public lands can be National Parks, forests, or protected areas like the ones designated as National Monuments. All together, about one-third of the United States is federally owned. And that means it belongs to all of us — the public. But that also gives the President a lot of power over these places.

Last month President Trump signed an executive order directing his interior secretary to review all national monuments over 100,000 acres, designated since Bill Clinton was president. 

National monuments are designated by presidents under a century-old law called the Antiquities Act. It was President Teddy Roosevelt who signed the law in 1906, and then he quickly used the new power to protect the Grand Canyon, Mount Olympus National Monument in Washington, and 16 other sites.  At the center of the current controversy is a place called Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. It includes world-class rock climbing, cliff dwellings and land sacred to five Native American tribes. President Obama designated 1.35 million acres of this land as a national monument last year.

Martin Nie is a professor of natural resources policy at the University of Montana.  He says Bears Ears, and another monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by Bill Clinton in 1996, were the reasons for Trump’s review.

“Grand Staircase-Escalante changed the politics in a big way. And these national monument designations have historically been smaller in size and so you could protect an archaeological area in Indian ruins something of that magnitude. But there’s language in the act that gives the president the ability to designate these national monuments with a size that is compatible with the purpose of the protection. And increasingly with Grand Staircase-Escalante, President Clinton made a landscape scale proclamation that was larger in size than some national monuments and the state of Utah was in opposition to it. At least their delegation was. And so things really became much more politicized after President Clinton’s designation.”

Professor Nie says it’s hard to keep up with all the changes regarding public lands. And he’s never seen the debate at this level. 

“There have long been flare ups and controversies associated public lands management. I mean that’s the messy part of democracy. And so there’s always some tension and conflict built into this but I’ve never seen it at this level and professionally it’s hard to keep up. I mean it’s multiple fire hoses, maybe fire hydrants, going off at the same time. I am pretty stretched right now to keep up with all of it.” 

Nie says in particular, he’s concerned about changes at the Bureau of Land Management. A recent leaked memo shows that the Bureau of Land Management will now prioritize the extracting of coal oil and natural gas from public lands. 

“We know now that the Bureau of Land Management is going to be headed in a very different direction over the next four years.  I don’t think there’s any confusion about the direction of Interior Secretary Zinke and President Trump. I think it’s just more clearly articulated in the memo what the intention is. And I will say that it’s important to recognize that there was quite a bit of oil and gas development going on during the Obama administration. So there were a lot of conservation groups who felt it was not balanced enough during the Obama administration. But we know now that the new direction is going to be to expedite all extractive economic uses of our public lands. And that’s 248 million acres I believe. So we will have expedited grazing leases, coal development, oil and gas, natural gas, and it will be without a lot of environmental protections. So it’s a significant departure.” 

This episode was hosted by Julie Grant. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program.

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