Native American ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument.
The Washington Post / Getty Images
President Donald Trump is poised to begin unraveling his predecessors' public lands legacy, and may ultimately redefine the federal government's relationship to the American West in the process.
On Wednesday, Trump is expected to sign an executive order demanding the Department of the Interior review all national monument designations from the last two decades. The details of the order were not immediately known Monday, but during a speech on the Senate floor Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah described it as “reining in the abuse of authority under the Antiquities Act.”
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the order will aim to determine if the size and scope of monuments created over the past 21 years line up with the intent of the Antiquities Act — the 1906 law US presidents have used to set aside vast amounts of land in park-like preserves.
Neither the Interior Department nor the White House immediately responded to BuzzFeed News requests for additional details, but Utah Sen. Mike Lee's office confirmed that the order is expected to be signed on Wednesday.
While changes from the order may not be immediate, they could have a profound impact. One of the most pressing issues is a series of designations President Obama made in the final months of his term, the most controversial of which is Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Conservationists hailed the designation, but some locals and conservatives blasted it as an example of presidential overreach that will have dire impacts on the local economy.
The creation of Bears Ears helped Obama secure his legacy-building distinction of setting aside more land and water than any other president in US history.
The Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada, as seen on Dec. 30.
George Frey / Getty Images
Hatch hinted Monday that Trump's executive order could be the first serious step in making changes to Bears Ears and other Obama-era designations. After criticizing the creation of the monument, Hatch said the order will ask the Interior Department to “suggest legislative changes or modifications to these proclamations.”
It's unclear what those changes might be, but the comment clearly indicates that the Trump administration has Obama's monument designations — which include vast expanses in Nevada, California, the Pacific Ocean, and Maine — in its line of fire.
The scope of the order also indicates that there could be major changes coming to even older national monuments, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was created by President Clinton in 1996. Utah lawmakers have been pushing in recent months to shrink the size of that monument as well.
Comb Ridge in the Bears Ears area of Utah's San Juan County.
Reuters Staff / Reuters
Eliminating or altering decades worth of national monuments could have a major impact on the mostly-rural communities in their orbit, many of which would like to see the land used for other purposes such as grazing, mining, or logging.
But the larger issue is the Antiquities Act itself. Hatch's comment about “reining” it in suggests that the Trump administration is beginning a process that may alter the law, which could impact the ability of future presidents to create national monuments in the first place — a boon to local communities that feel strangled by regulation but a blow to conservationists who view the West as threatened by human activity.
For now, it remains unclear exactly how aggressive the Trump administration will be in dismantling Obama's public lands legacy and weakening the Antiquities Act. But one thing is now certain: change is coming.
“In President Trump we have a leader who is committed to defending the western way of life,” Hatch added Monday in the Senate. “I am deeply grateful for his willingness to work with us to undo the harm caused.”