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The Bears Ears buttes, located in Utah. The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is one of two designations President Barack Obama made at the end of his term, granting protection to land considered to be sacred. Photo by Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Interior Department calls for changes to national monuments but offers no details. Here’s how we got here

Interior secretary Ryan Zinke called Thursday for a “handful” of changes to 27 national monuments that have been under review since this spring.

The 120-day review, set in motion by an executive order from President Donald Trump, was due to end today with a “final” report of recommendations for national monument designations. Zinke delivered that report to the White House, but a White House official told NewsHour that today’s report is a draft; when the final report is done “in coming weeks,” it will be released, the official said.

Zinke told the Associated Press that while his assessment stops short of eliminating any monuments, it does alter the boundaries for some of these wilderness areas. The interior department has provided no public details on the size or location of these boundary changes, though Zinke told the AP he felt some monuments are too large.

Here’s how we got here.

Some background: Zinke’s review began in late April, after an executive order directed the interior department to review 22 federally-owned lands protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Two days later, a second order — called “Implementing An America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” — expanded the review to marine monuments, including the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under U.S. jurisdiction, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. All 27 monuments were either established or expanded by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

The interior opened up the review to the public, collecting more than 2.4 million comments from “relevant stakeholders.” An Interior Department summary of the report, which the White House says is still a draft, stated “comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments,” though opinions on the issue remain split.

Why has this been controversial?

For ranchers and people in the West who use public lands, the concept of an Antiquities Act designation just hits them the wrong way, Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Land Council, told NewsHour. He described the concept of the review was “breath of fresh air” that allowed ranchers to contribute to designation of public lands.

But Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, described any kind of reduction of national monument as an attack on all. (Zinke told AP public access to hunting, fishing or grazing would remain intact or be restored).

Prior to today’s report, Zinke removed six of the 27 national monuments — one each in Montana, Colorado, Idaho, California, Arizona and Washington — from the initial list, stating those areas were no longer being reviewed.

Has this happened before?

While there is no official restriction on the size of national monuments, presidents have only shifted their boundaries about dozen times — and none since John F. Kennedy, according to The Atlantic:

Since that time, too, Congress passed the Federal Land Management and Policy Act in 1976, which remade public land law and reserved more power over national monuments for Congress.

Yet there is a history of presidents tinkering around the edges of national monuments—and sometimes cutting into them wholesale. Mount Olympus National Monument on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula provides a good example of this. The monument, encompassing temperate rainforest and Pacific seashore, was first created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. In the next two decades, it received two small, largely uncontroversial cuts, as the original designation had accidentally included some private homesteads.

One monument in the crosshairs

Zinke had already called on Trump to revise the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, an area designated by President Barack Obama as one of his last acts in office. This 1.35 million-acre swath in southeastern Utah is filled with dinosaur fossils, red rock canyons, mesas and archaeological sites of significance to Native Americans. While Zinke declined to comment on future fossil fuel speculation for the 27 monuments under review, such plans had been floated for Bears Ears in the recent past.

In July 2016, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced the Utah Public Lands Initiative, which included a proposal for fossil fuel development in what is now Bears Ears.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, told NewsHour that the oil and natural gas industry has not been greatly affected by monument designations so far. She said leases in contentious places — like Bears Ears and Missouri Breaks — were abandoned long ago by oil companies.

What’s next?

It’s a game of wait and see, until The White House releases a final report. It’s not clear when that will be.

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