Monuments on Paper Only?

Priscilla Brooks | @pbrooks111

National monuments without protections from commercial activities won’t do what they’re meant to do – comprehensively protect our natural, scientific, and cultural treasures

In late August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted to President Trump a report on his summer-long, unnecessary “review” of 27 of America’s treasured national monuments, including two of the newest: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts and Katahdin Woods and Waters in New England.

Now that we’ve seen reports that Secretary Zinke recommends opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts to commercial fishing and Katahdin Woods and Waters to “active timber management,” it’s clear this administration’s motives for this “review” were not about protecting the public good at all. And while we’d like to remain cautiously optimistic that President Trump won’t follow the recommendations, this administration’s touted support from fossil fuel companies and other extractive industries – who may want access to national monuments – doesn’t give us much hope.

What we’re left with is a lot of speculation – will President Trump follow Secretary Zinke’s poor advice and make an unpopular decision to expose our national treasures to the very threats that monument protection was meant to safeguard them from? With the fate of our national treasures hanging in the balance, CLF is not waiting for a decision.

Preparing the Case

When it comes to the law through which national monuments are established, the president’s power is clear. The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows the president the authority to make proclamations – but not to undo them. The power to modify national monuments rests solely in the hands of Congress and is not an implied power of the president.

More than 120 legal scholars agree with this assessment (you can read their letter here). To take any other action under the auspices of the Antiquities Act would be a blatant presidential overreach. Here’s another report from the National Parks Conservation Association if you need more convincing.

In all, about two million comments were submitted during the review of national monuments – 99 percent of which were in favor of keeping our national monuments in place. CLF isn’t going to let this administration ignore the support of millions who want to protect places that encompass the best of America’s natural legacy for future generations.

What’s at Stake

Take the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument here in New England: a year ago, on September 15, 2016, President Obama protected 4,913 square miles of New England ocean located about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The monument includes four submarine mountains (seamounts) and three deep-sea canyons. Every square mile of this designation is scientifically and ecologically important – if anything, it isn’t large enough!

What’s more, high biodiversity and unique habitats within the monument area mean new scientific discoveries are made upon each expedition. Now protected from commercial fishing disturbances, fish, whales, deep sea corals and other marine life find a refuge here – even more important now that the ecosystem is facing stress from increasing temperatures and acidification in our ocean. Protection from the damaging impacts of commercial fishing was precisely among the key purposes for which this monument was created; allowing it back in would render it a monument on paper only.

To “review” important monument designations such as this is to challenge the notion that Americans deserve public ownership over our cultural and historic relics, scientific discoveries, and outstanding natural environments. Were the president to take it a step further and undo our hard-fought progress for the sake of enriching private commercial interests, we would all risk losing out on the promise of passing along the wonder of nature and the realization of scientific potential to future generations. That cannot stand.

Is the president really willing to put the nation’s most exceptional natural resources on the chopping block?

We hope not. We hope that we and the millions of other American scientists, conservationists, and citizens who supported these protections can avert disaster, and CLF intends to fight to maintain our national monuments every step of the way. We call on the president to do the right thing and keep all of our national monuments in place, with the same level of protections as originally designated. We’ll continue to push decision makers to prioritize keeping our public lands and waters in the public’s hands.

And if all else fails, we’re preparing to take this administration to court – because it’s the right thing to do and the only option left. Monuments on Paper Only are simply not enough.

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