Public land policy has taken a familiar direction under the Trump administration, yet deviated from that direction in ways not seen before. For the purpose of this post, the term “public lands” refers to lands managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior, and the US Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, comprising about 27 percent of the landmass of the United States.
What is familiar is the renewed emphasis on the use and production of public lands resources, such as oil and gas, heightened grazing, and motorized recreation. This emphasis follows a pattern of Republican administrations since the Eisenhower era. Readers are probably most familiar with the shift in focus between the Carter administration and the Reagan administration. Carter and his Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus were known for the protection of public lands in Alaska through their use of the Antiquities Act to bring about the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act (ANILCA), as well as the implementation of a balanced resource use and protection policy for the BLM lands as dictated by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Reagan, who stated that he was a Sagebrush Rebel, changed policy direction. But he actually helped defuse the Sagebrush Rebellion movement with his Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who pushed for the restoration of traditional natural resource uses and the weakening of environmental regulations. Similar reversals and changes of direction followed across the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. None of these changes, on some level, are surprising, because of the legacy of public lands policy. That legacy, which took shape during the Progressive Era, emphasized both use of natural resources as well as the preservation of some resources, like national parks. Generally, Republicans favored use and Democrats favored preservation.
The Trump administration has diverged from this pattern in several ways. First, unlike earlier administrations, this one has shown no real interest in filling top administration jobs. For example, when James Watt became Secretary of the Interior, he had a set of political appointees quickly in place. The director roles of BLM, USFWS, and NPS have gone unfilled under Trump, leading to speculation that the Trump administration is deliberately attempting to weaken agency morale and leadership. In the case of the Forest Service, the positions of both the Undersecretary of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service, and the professional position of Chief have not been filled, though there was a USFS Chief for a short while until he resigned due to personnel-related concerns.
Another notable difference is the discrepancy between the rhetoric and policy decisions of Trump’s Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke. Zinke has quite vocally styled himself as a Theodore Roosevelt conservationist yet has appeared to promote the development of energy resources over any other use or protection of public lands under his care. A comparison to the James Watt or Gayle Norton (Secretary of the Interior under George H.W. Bush) era will not find such overt and contradictory rhetoric. Indeed, this promotion will likely repeat the external environmental threats issue I first wrote about in the late 1980s, as there is proposed oil and gas and other resource development that could occur adjacent to units of the national park system.
But the current administration’s most controversial change in public lands policy has been its decision to review certain presidential national monuments proclaimed under the Antiquities Act by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. President Trump has reduced Bears Ears National Monument, so proclaimed by President Obama in 2016, from 1.3 million acres to 228,000 acres. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Clinton in 1996, was cut nearly in half, from nearly 1.9 million acres to about one million acres.
Both reductions, by far the largest in history, were made on December 4, 2017. To date, these are the only two actions that the Trump administration has taken to reduce the size of any national monuments; however, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon also be reduced in size. Shortly after the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante reductions, a number of groups filed lawsuits challenging them.
It remains unclear whether the president has the authority to reduce the size of national monuments proclaimed by predecessors. It has happened prior to the Trump administration, but most of those reductions have been minor, except for what was then Olympus National Monument. Its acreage was reduced by 313,280 acres by President Woodrow Wilson to make Sitka spruce available as a resource to use in building airplanes during World War I. Olympus National Monument was later enlarged and designated Olympic National Park by Congress.
But hidden away in House Report 94-1163, which accompanied the original passage of FLPMA, is language that suggests that the president may not be permitted to reduce the size of a national monument post-1976, the date of the act’s passage. This report came with the House bill H.R. 13777, as reported by the 94th Congress. The committee report states: “[The bill] would also specifically reserve to the Congress the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act. . . . These provisions will insure that the integrity of the great national resource management systems will remain under the control of the Congress.” One interpretation of this House report would suggest that Congress reserved the revocation power in terms of national monuments to itself, but this language is in a report and is not in the law itself.
John Freemuth is University Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Executive Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. He chaired the Science Advisory Board of the Bureau of Land Management after being appointed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. With Zachary A. Smith, he is coeditor of Environmental Politics and Policy in the West, Third Edition.