Interior Secretary Seeks to Diminish National Monuments and the Dignity of the Office
Public lands and wildlife advocates are becoming all too familiar with the truism: if Interior Secretary Zinke is in the news, it’s probably a bad sign for our most treasured places and imperiled species.
Just this week, Secretary Zinke suggested fossil fuel extraction on public lands is in the nation’s best interest and a better use of our public lands than large-scale renewable energy development. And in a single speech, managed to trash the Endangered Species Act (which his Department is in charge of administering); offer a bizarre defense of fracking as “proof that God’s got a sense of humor and he loves us”; and deliver a shockingly authoritarian allegation that one-third of the Department employees weren’t loyal to himself or President Trump.
Last week, Zinke was in the headlines thanks to a White House leak of the heretofore secret report in which he outlined the administration’s plan for, you guessed it, selling out our national monuments. So, as we prepare to celebrate Public Lands Day, let’s take a look at what Zinke has proposed to do.
Making a Mockery of Our Monuments
Defending our national monuments has been a major priority for Defenders since President Trump ordered a “review“of more than a dozen of these special places, which placed them at risk of losing their protections or even their national monument designation. Secretary Zinke initially sent his “recommendations” to the President in August, but publicly released only a vague summary that described the review process rather than his recommendations. We’ve been waiting impatiently ever since for an official release of his full report, and wading through rumors about the contents. Then on September 17, the wait came to an end when The Washington Post published a series of screenshots of the report from an anonymous source.
Zinke’s report takes aim at ten monuments – seven terrestrial and three marine – though it should be noted, it doesn’t explicitly recommend that any of the 27 should be left untouched. The report recommends that four of the terrestrial monuments be reduced in size – Bears Ears, Cascade-Siskiyou, Gold Butte, and Grand Staircase-Escalante – but what isn’t clear is how much of a reduction he is recommending for each. Zinke also recommends changing the monument proclamation and management plans for all four of these, along with Katahdin Woods and Waters, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, and Rio Grande del Norte, presumably to permit more activities like mining, drilling and logging. The report explicitly recommends timber harvest in Katahdin Woods and Waters, which encompasses wild lands and wilderness waters that were donated to the government expressly to become a national monument.
The report also recommends allowing commercial fishing in three marine national monuments: Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic. The Pacific monuments might also face size reduction, while the expansion of fishing in Northeast Canyons and Seamounts would be accomplished by amending the monument proclamation.
All ten of the monuments now most at risk contain outstanding wildlife habitat and protect hundreds of imperiled species. And we still don’t know if and how the president will respond to the Secretary’s review. The choice of whether to uphold our country’s natural heritage or follow the example of “shrinking Zinke” is now in President Trump’s hands. We’ll be watching.
In the Balance
- Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada is an incredibly valuable corridor for large species such as the bighorn sheep and mountain lion. Analysis has shown the monument is likely to be highly resilient to climate change and contains critical habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise.
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a unique haven for wildlife in Utah. Spanning an area the size of Delaware, the monument protects a variety of habitats, from deserts to coniferous forests. Grand Staircase is home to bears, desert bighorn sheep and mountain lions, as well as over 200 species of birds, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons.
- Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is of great conservation value to many fish, wildlife and plants. More than 15 species of bats can be found throughout the monument and topographic features such as rock depressions collect scarce rainfall to provide habitat for numerous aquatic species. Bears Ears is world-renowned for its prized elk population and is also home to mule deer and bighorn sheep. The area’s diversity of soils and rich microenvironments provide for a great diversity of vegetation that sustains dozens of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
- Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and California is unique in that it was expressly established to conserve biological diversity. The monument area is a fusion of three different ecoregions, characterized by varying elevations and moisture regimes, and supporting a broad range of species and habitat types. Ongoing research has already discovered that 135 species of butterflies use the monument.
- Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine spans three ecoregions, which produces an amazing amount of biodiversity within the designation. The monument provides key habitat for moose, bear, threatened Canada lynx and endangered Atlantic salmon, all of which require large ranges to ensure viable populations. Seventy-eight species of birds also breed in the area.
- Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico protects portions of five mountain ranges rising above deserts, grasslands and scrublands of the Chihuahuan Desert. Ponderosa pine and seasonal springs and streams are found in the uplands. These ecosystems provide habitat for many endemic and threatened wildlife species, such as the endangered Aplomado falcon. It is also home to a stunning array of reptiles, including black-tailed, banded rock and western diamondback rattlesnakes and tree, earless, Madrean alligator and checkered whiptail lizards, just to name a few. Species such as mountain lions, mule deer, golden eagles, ladder-backed woodpeckers, cactus wrens and kangaroo rats also live within the monument.
- Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument in New Mexico preserves a large stretch of the Central Migratory Flyway, a key migration corridor for birds such as Canada geese, herons, sandhill cranes, hummingbirds and American avocets. It is also habitat for several bat species and raptors, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, rare Gunnison’s prairie dogs, Rocky Mountain elk, black bear, mule deer, pronghorn, red foxes, cougars, bobcats, bald eagles and many other species. The North American river otter was also recently reintroduced into the monument.
- Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument protects almost 5,000 square miles of ocean biodiversity, much of which is not found anywhere else in the world. The monument supports deep sea corals, sperm, fin and sei whales, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and a large “bloom” of phytoplankton and zooplankton that feeds whales and other marine species.
- Rose Atoll Marine National Monument protects the uninhabited easternmost island of American Samoa and its surrounding waters. The reef is nesting habitat for green and hawksbill sea turtles, and is home to 97 percent of American Samoa’s seabirds. The surrounding waters contain 270 species of fish and 100 species of coral.
- Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is comprised of seven atolls and islands located south of the main Hawaiian Islands. It is an important seabird colony, and the surrounding waters are important habitat for sea turtles, sharks, whales and many fish species. The monument also protects undersea mountains that are home to many species found nowhere else on earth.
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