Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Tuesday that President Trump reduce the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon and three others, but didn’t say by how much. The recommendation came the day after the president traveled to Utah to announce the shrinkage of two national monuments — one by half, the other by 85 percent. The actions threaten to make an important type of public land protection provisional, to the detriment of some of the nation’s most important scenic, cultural and biological resources.
Presidents create national monuments under authority granted to them by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Cascade-Siskiyou monument was created by President Clinton in 2000, and expanded by President Obama in his last days in office. President Wilson scaled back the national monument that later became Olympic National Park, but the legal question of whether the Antiquities Act is a two-way street has not been answered by the courts.
It’s about to be: Lawsuits have already been filed by Native American tribes and conservation groups against Trump’s decision to reduce the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante monuments in Utah. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said she may sue if the president withdraws protection from the Cascade-Siskiyou monument. The tribes may have a particularly strong case: Bears Ears was created to protect sites sacred to Native Americans from looting and desecration — the explicit original purpose of the Antiquities Act.
If the Trump administration prevails, monument designations would mean little — lands protected by one president could be opened to development by the next. Permanent protection would have to come from Congress, either by clarifying the Antiquities Act to block presidential rollbacks or by giving monuments some type of protective status. But Congress gave presidents the authority to create monuments for a reason: They are less likely to be swayed by parochial concerns, and can place the national interest above all else.
As part of his review of 27 existing monuments, Zinke has recommended that three new ones be created — in Kentucky, Mississippi and Zinke’s home state of Montana. How long would those designations last? By asserting that previous presidents’ decisions about monuments can be reversed, Trump is undermining his own authority.