Montanans blast Trump’s monument reduction as illegal assault on public lands

Native American ruins located in Bears Ears National Monument, which will see a significant boundary reduction under a proclamation issued Monday by President Donald Trump. (Reuters)

Conservation groups across Montana and the West on Monday blasted a decision by President Donald Trump to reduce the size of two national monuments, saying his proclamations represent an outright assault on public lands and may be illegal.

In an unprecedented move by a president, Trump ordered an 85-percent reduction to the boundaries of the Bears Ears monument and a 50-percent reduction to Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, both located in Utah.

While both monuments had strong support from conservationists and Native Americans, who believe the land in question is sacred, they’d long been decried by Utah Republicans who see them not as a national icon, but as an example of federal overreach.

Reactions to Trump’s decision came quickly, with the Montana Wilderness Association calling the proclamations illegal. Several groups have promised to file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s decision.

“The president’s illegal proclamation today stands as one of the biggest assaults ever unleashed on American public lands,” said John Todd, conservation director for MWA.

Other groups focused their criticism on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who in April set out to review as many as 27 national monuments created over the past 20 years. He submitted his findings in August, saying he would recommend to Trump changing a “handful” of monuments.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended changes to “a handful” of national monuments. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Secretary Zinke’s plan to unravel the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt is an unmistakable threat to small businesses in the West,” said Marne Hays, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors. “The lack of transparency and uncertainty created by undoing important public lands designations is detrimental to our outdoor economy.”

Both the Montana Wilderness Association and Hold Our Ground – a diverse coalition of Montana groups advocating for public lands – have also called on Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, to withdraw his support for a House resolution making it legal for a president to strip protection from public lands across the West.

The misleading bill, known as the National Monument Creation and Protection Act, would also prohibit current and future presidents from designating national monuments, as is currently allowed by the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Gianforte has voted for the resolution.

“(The resolution) is an attempt by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop to not only dismantle the Antiquities Act, but to dismantle our entire public lands legacy,” said Hilary Hutcheson, host of Trout TV and the owner of an outdoors shop in Columbia Falls. “If Rep. Gianforte doesn’t withdraw his support of the House resolution, Montanans will certainly hold him accountable for standing with Rep. Bishop’s anti-public lands crusade and against Montana’s outdoor way of life.”

Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Antiquities Act gives U.S. presidents the authority to designate national monuments and safeguard public lands that claim outstanding natural, cultural, historical and scientific value.

Over the past 110 years, 16 presidents, including eight Democrats and eight Republicans, have used the Antiquities Act to designate 157 national monuments, including Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks and Pompeys Pillar.

“If the resolution passes, the Upper Missouri River Breaks will be put right back on the chopping block and subject to the political whims of the current and future presidents,” said Nicolle Fugere, a Fort Benton business owner. “The bill jeopardizes my business and thousands of others in Montana and across the country that depend on the permanent protection national monuments were intended to have.”