Last week, Trump signed an executive order that initiates a review of every national monument classified since 1996 over 100,000 acres in size—functionally, this includes 22 land-based national monuments and 5 marine monuments. Depending upon the conclusions of these reviews, it is possible that these lands could be declassified as national monuments, sent back to state control, and opened to privatization.
The national monument designation was defined under the 1906 Antiquities Act and is used to protect historic or vulnerable natural sites from abuse. National monuments have designated boundaries, within which there are additional restrictions on land use and enhanced conservation protections. In some cases, these restrictions also prevent the destruction of key archaeological sites and native landmarks. Specific restrictions vary based on the site and are designed to preserve our natural treasures so that future generations can enjoy them.
For example, it would be impossible for an oil company to conduct offshore drilling in a designated marine monument, just as it would be impossible for an oil transfer company to run a pipeline through a land-based national monument. In fact, this is one reason why some activists wanted President Obama to designate the Standing Rock reservation land a national monument–so Energy Transfer Partners would be forced to reroute the pipeline.
If Trump’s Department of the Interior decides to reclassify these monuments, they will be made vulnerable to any number of environmental threats—this will be the case even if the Trump administration’s “reviews” simply shrink the land designation for these monuments, or reduces the restrictions on their use.
For example, one of the marine monuments under review is the vulnerable ecological area in the Atlantic Ocean called the Northeast Canyons. These were classified as a national monument in 2016 by the Obama administration specifically to protect them from oil and gas exploration which would destroy their ecosystems (e.g. through drilling, chemical spills, noise, and other activities). If Trump eliminates this national monument, it will allow private oil companies to start obtaining mineral extraction leases and destroying the environment in an attempt to find valuable natural resources.
During the signing ceremony, Trump made the following statement about the purpose of this executive order:
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice.
I’ve spoken with many state and local leaders — a number of them here today — who care very much about preserving our land, and who are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab. And it’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place.”
This comment makes Trump’s intentions very clear. He is trying to end the “abusive” practice of protecting lands from destruction, while state leaders are perfectly happy to sell out to private corporations. If he has his way, the federal government will step aside and let oil, gas, mining, farming, and other big industries strip-mine these vulnerable lands for a personal profit, while leaving the contaminated husk of the land for the rest of us.
The “massive federal land grab” he cites is, in reality, simply an attempt to protect vulnerable and historic natural treasures and landmarks from pollution and exploitation. These are our public lands and the idea that protecting them amounts to a land grab puts the situation on its head—the real “land grab” will be corrupt state and local politicians selling these public lands to polluters.
This situation is ongoing, as these reviews have not yet begun. While this story isn’t as inflammatory or sensational as many of the other Trump abuses, it is still important for the American people to keep pressure on his administration during this reclassification process. These lands are a legacy that we can easily destroy with careless action and privatization, and there is no way to repair them once they are gone.