The Trump administration targeted at least two dozen national monuments in an Executive Order this week, with the apparent goal of reducing or eliminating protections for these treasured lands and waters. The consequences for wildlife could be devastating.
You may not be familiar with the Antiquities Act—after all, the law was passed way back in 1906—but perhaps you have visited Grand Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Grand Teton or Acadia national parks? If so, you may be surprised to discover that each of these beloved places was originally protected as a “national monument” under the Antiquities Act, which authorizes the president to protect public lands and waters to preserve their historic, cultural and conservation values. Along with preserving the Statue of Liberty in New York and ancient petroglyphs in New Mexico, national monuments across the country also benefit wildlife in a great diversity of habitats.
Every president, with the exception of only three, has used the Antiquities Act to designate federal lands and waters as national monuments. It has become part of their legacy and part of our American story. From the very first designation of Devils Tower National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 to last year’s establishment of Bears Ears National Monument by Barrack Obama, Republican and Democratic presidents have designated more than 150 monuments since the enactment of the Antiquities Act.
Despite broad public support and bipartisan use of the Antiquities Act to protect some of America’s most amazing places, the Trump administration appears intent on diminishing or even eliminating protections for dozens of existing national monuments. Trump’s Executive Order directs Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to “review” national monuments designated since 1996. The review provides ample cover for President Trump and anti-conservation forces in Congress—who have been waging a steady war on monuments for years—to drastically weaken or even eliminate entire national monuments. Those same members of Congress are not content with just eliminating or diminishing current monuments, they also hope to restrict the ability of future presidents to designate monuments under the Antiquities Act.
A few vociferous legislators and their special interest allies have long criticized the Antiquities Act as a federal “land grab,” portraying the law as a tool the president uses to unilaterally take control of millions of acres of land and water at will. This claim is patently false. Lands and waters designated as national monuments already belong to the American people, as is clearly specified in the Act: monuments “are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.”
President Trump’s order also characterizes monuments as “barriers to achieving energy independence,” making it clear that the oil, gas and coal industries are driving the anti-monument agenda as they seek to expand their reach on – and profits taken from – the nation’s public lands. These political attacks on our national monuments not only threaten the integrity of America’s historic, cultural and natural heritage, but pose a danger to the fish, wildlife and plants that depend on them.
Protecting America’s Wildlife and Rich Biodiversity
Monuments are designated to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest,” including native wildlife and biodiversity. Each of the monuments profiled below is subject to review and possible alteration or even elimination under the President’s Executive Order. In fact, these monuments may be targeted for revision or elimination because they conserve wildlife and biodiversity values. Trump’s order directs the Secretary of the Interior to determine whether monuments are “appropriately classified” as lands containing objects of historic or scientific interest; this opens the door for the President or Congress to arbitrarily determine that a monument “inappropriately” offered conservation protections for wildlife and other ecological values.
For example, the Trump administration could determine that President Clinton “inappropriately” designated the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2000 for the purposes of conserving the incredible biological diversity found in Oregon’s southern Cascade mountains (President Obama expanded the monument in 2017). In his proclamation designating the monument, President Clinton extolled the area’s “exceptional range of fauna, including one of the highest diversities of butterfly species in the United States,” and the fact that it is, “a significant center of fresh water snail diversity, and is home to three endemic fish species, including a long-isolated stock of redband trout.”
Monuments also support imperiled species listed under the Endangered Species Act and other at-risk fish, wildlife and plants. For instance, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument protects swaths of old growth forest necessary to support the conservation and recovery of the threatened northern spotted owl. The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, designated by President Obama in 2014, protects essential aquatic habitat for the threatened Santa Ana sucker and California red-legged frog. The monument also supports over 50 designated at-risk plants and hundreds of California-endemic plants that depend on the rare intact Mediterranean ecosystem conditions found in the San Gabriel range. A recent analysis of one of our newest national monuments – and one directly in Trump’s crosshairs, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah – found it to be “one of the most wild” places in the West, supporting 18 federally protected species, and providing important habitat connectivity, species diversity and other ecological values.
While sometimes overlooked, marine monuments protect an incredible array of biodiversity. President George W. Bush designated multiple marine monuments during his tenure. The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which surrounds the northwestern islands of Hawaii, has been dubbed “America’s Galapagos” due to the area’s unique biological value, including habitat for endangered blue, humpback and false killer whales. President Obama expanded the monument in 2016, which now protects marine resources over 580,000 square miles.
America’s newest marine national monument (and first within the Atlantic) was designated by President Obama in 2016: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. It protects underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and massive extinct volcanoes within a 4,900-square-mile area off the mid-Atlantic coast. The ecological foundation for this biodiversity hotspot is a variety of rare and at-risk deep-sea coral communities that support a functional marine ecosystem that offers refuge for endangered sperm, fin and sei whales and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.
Each of these monuments, and the stunning wildlife and biodiversity values they protect, are now under immediate threat.
Defenders is Committed to Fighting for Our National Monuments
Defenders is committed to ensuring that America’s national monuments and other priceless public lands and waters are not developed or exploited by short-sighted politicians. We are undertaking campaigns to vigorously fight for the wildlife, fish and plants that call these lands and waters home. These campaigns will oppose the abhorrent efforts to sell-off or transfer our treasured public lands and waters, as well as defend the laws and policies that conserve wildlife habitat in these essential places.
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