WASHINGTON — The White House is getting ready to move on a contentious plan to shrink national monuments in the West, which could involve the redrawing of borders at several that are home to unique geological formations, rare archaeological artifacts and pristine landscapes.
The blueprint delivered to President Donald Trump on Thursday by the Department of Interior — but not yet shared with the public — represents an unprecedented effort to roll back protections on federal land. The exact impact to Kern County-area monuments was unclear.
Even before the plan's release, state attorneys general, environmental groups and Native Americans have put the administration on notice that acting on it would be illegal.
The plan sent to the White House does not include elimination of any monuments, but it suggests the president make changes at “a handful,” according to comments Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made to The Associated Press on Thursday morning.
Two large monuments in Utah and one in Oregon have already been revealed to be among those on the list for downsizing.
Zinke said in a separate statement Thursday that the plan would “provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses and recreation.”
Such changes could alter forever some of the country’s iconic landscapes.
California has more monuments on the review list than any other state. The list included San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which forms a backdrop to Los Angeles; Mojave Trails National Monument in the Southern California desert; Giant Sequoia National Monument in the southern Sierra Nevada; Carrizo Plain National Monument on the southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley; and Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Northern California.
Zinke had earlier announced that he would be recommending no changes to another California monument on the list, Sand to Snow National Monument.
Zinke’s assurance that no monuments would be eliminated altogether was little solace to advocates who expected to get clarity on Trump’s plan Thursday. Instead, they were told no further details would be disclosed about which monuments would be downsized and how significantly. The secrecy added yet more public confusion to what has often seemed a scattershot review.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called upon the White House to release the recommendation.
“The American people have the right to see his entire report,” she said. “A proposal to strip protections from public lands should be made public immediately.”
Kern County includes a segment of the Giant Sequoia National Monument and its western border snuggles up to the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Those two monuments aren’t going away, but will they shrink?
Joe Fontaine of Tehachapi, part of the Sierra Club’s Sequoia Task Force, said news the monument will stay is good.
“I’m feeling a little more sanquine about it now,” he said.
But the Sierra Club is deeply concerned about any shrinking of the monument, he said.
Rebecca August, a public lands advocate for Los Padres ForestWatch, is less than sanguine about the news. Carrizo Plain, she wrote in a press release, is still in danger.
“The Department of the Interior is recommending shrinking monuments and weakening protections. It could well have been that a decision has been made that would leave it vulnerable to irreversible development that would spoil the monument in all the ways that have made it so popular,” she wrote. “If anything, withholding the DOI’s recommendations from the public shows how deeply unpopular the review was, and certainly should give us no sense that our monuments are safe.”
The issue has sparked controversy and some contentious votes in city council chambers and before boards of supervisors around the southern San Joaquin Valley.
In June the Kern County Planning and Resource Department proposed sending a letter to Zinke supporting a reduction in the size of the Sequoia National Monument from the current 328,000 acres approved by President Bill Clinton to the 90,000 acres originally created by President George H.W. Bush.
The proposed letter was backed by multi-use trails group Stewards of the Sequoia, whose leader, Chris Horgan, told supervisors the monument hasn’t been managed well. Supervisors chose not to take up the contentious issue.
The Porterville City Council voted 3-2 to oppose reduction of the monument in June while the Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to support a reduction.
Over the summer, California Democrats at both the state and federal level defended the designations and vowed to fight any changes.
“Once designated, a National Monument becomes part of our national heritage and the birthright of all future Americans,” Gov. Jerry Brown wrote Zinke in July.
In a June letter to the Interior Department, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed “to take any and all legal action necessary” to preserve the California monuments.
The state Legislature passed a resolution urging the Trump administration to retain the protections. And California’s two Democratic senators, Feinstein and Kamala Harris, also asked Zinke to leave California’s monuments alone.
But members of the congressional Western Caucus, including California Republican Reps. Paul Cook, Doug LaMalfa and Tom McClintock, urged Zinke to revoke the Berryessa Snow designation as a national monument and to reduce the size of all the other California monuments except Sand to Snow.
When he signed an executive order ordering the review in April, Trump accused his predecessors of an “egregious abuse of federal power” in their creation of some national monuments. Since that time, Zinke has been examining the 27 monuments larger than 100,000 acres established since the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Zinke has already revealed that Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is among those targeted for a significant downsizing.
The report sent to the White House also recommended reducing the size of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, according to The Washington Post.
Zinke previously identified five monuments in addition to Sand to Snow, all outside California, that he will recommend remain untouched.
The public has weighed in too. Some 2.7 million people have sent comments to the department, more than 90 percent of them urging it not to ease protections.
White House officials said the report may not be released publicly for weeks, as they review and consider changes to Zinke’s plan. But the president is expected to order most if not all of Zinke’s plan implemented. Whether he has that authority is an open question. No president has attempted to unilaterally redraw the boundaries of the nation’s vast network of public lands.
Not every state is rushing to defend monuments under attack. Leaders in Utah lobbied Trump to rescind the designation of the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in the remote desert Canyonlands of their state. The monument was created by President Barack Obama just before he left office, and the move enraged state officials who complained it killed off potential oil, gas and mining jobs in the region.
The monument was created at the behest of five tribal nations eager to protect more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites they fear are vulnerable to looting and grave robbing.
The creation of Bears Ears was central to Obama’s environmental legacy, and it also intensified long-standing tensions between Utah and the federal government over monuments. The dispute stretches back to the Clinton administration, whose creation of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument riled some Utah residents. They decried the move, which derailed a proposed coal project in the area, as an economically destabilizing land grab.
Utah’s governor and two U.S. senators were at the ceremony where Trump signed the executive order calling for the review of the national monuments. The president remarked on how heavily Sen. Orrin Hatch lobbied him to rescind the designation of Bears Ears.
But even with the fledgling Bears Ears monument, the easiest for Trump to target politically, voters are hardly as enthusiastic as politicians about dismantling it. Polls show they are divided. The campaign against Bears Ears triggered an intense backlash before Trump even signed his order, in which outdoor apparel company Patagonia led a boycott effort that cost Salt Lake City a major trade show that has been providing an economic boost to the city for 20 years.
It and other major retailers have mobilized customers in support of the monument, helping generate tens of thousands of the comments sent to the administration. Patagonia recently began running pointed commercials in Western states warning Zinke that the land belongs to the people and flashing images of once-pristine landscapes ravaged by logging and drilling.