WASHINGTON – An Interior Department plan to review recently designated national monuments has drawn more than 1.4 million public comments, a “phenomenal” number that one advocate said he had not seen in 25 years of environmental activism.
The comments came in response to President Donald Trump’s order that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke review the use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments in recent decades, what the president called “another egregious abuse of federal power.”
But some activists worry that, despite the outpouring of comments on the proposal, administration officials may already have their minds made up.
Wayne Y. Hoskisson, the wilderness and public lands co-chair of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Trump administration is acting under pressure from congressional Republicans to take a harder tack on deregulation.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would be concerned about, say, overturning the Ironwood Forest in Arizona,” he said. “That seems like an incredibly appropriate designation for that area.”
The Ironwood Forest, near Tucson, was designated a national monument in 2000 using the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that gives the president the authority to name national monuments to protect natural, cultural and archeological resources that might otherwise be endangered.
It is one of four monuments in Arizona – along with the Grand Canyon-Parashant, the Sonoran Desert and the Vermillion Cliffs, covering a total of 1.9 million acres – which are subject to review under Trump’s order.
The executive order does not name specific monuments, but directs Zinke to look at any that were designated or expanded under the act since 1996 “without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.” The April 26 document also does not order immediate changes at any monument, but required Zinke to file his findings within 120 days.
That set off the influx of public comments usually unheard of for federal proposals.
Trump had bashed the administration of former President Barack Obama for putting hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under federal protection through what he called the “abuse” of the act.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up billions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice,” Trump said before signing the order. “Today, we are putting the states back in charge.”
But Adam Sarvana, the communications director for Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Zinke’s mind was most likely already made up.
“If he were really interested in public input on the ground, he would have gone to them,” Sarvana said.
He said the comment invitation is a way for the administration to allow the public to participate but carry out their agenda regardless.
The public is “overwhelmingly against” what the Trump administration is doing, Sarvana said.
The Center for Western Priorities said it selected 1,000 of the public comments at random earlier this month – when federal officials had processed just over 650,000 of the comments – and found that more than 98 percent favored leaving the monuments alone. Hoskisson pointed to surveys of Utah residents that found 60 to 70 percent opposed changes to the monuments’ status.
But Hoskisson said despite his apprehension, the fact that the administration is inviting comment is a sign that the content of Zinke’s final report is not a foregone conclusion.
“There is some hope, but on the other hand, this is a political process,” he said. “There’s going to be some politics at play. So who knows what he’s going to do?”