Photo: Pi Consti / Flickr

As the final hours of Obama’s presidency draw to a close, one of the many looming questions on both sides of the aisle is whether Trump can unilaterally declassify the more than 30 national monuments — comprising millions of acres of land and sea — that Obama either established or enlarged over the last eight years.

The answer isn’t so simple.

With no existing precedent or formal adjudication on the books, some say “no” and others say “yes.” 

Here’s why…

U.S. National Park System: National Parks v. National Monuments

The United States National Park System encompasses a wondrous collection of over 400 locations spanning all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and Saipan. 

Wildflowers in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, California. (Source: Bureau of Land Management, California/Flickr)

Within the National Park System, there are 20 different designations for protected areas; collectively, national parks and national monuments are the most numerous and tend to be the most familiar.

So, what exactly is the difference between a national park and a national monument?

National parks are created by an act of Congress and are typically selected for their unusual geological features, unique ecosystems, natural beauty and recreational opportunities. 

National monuments, on the other hand, can be designated by a President in his or her sole discretion. The American Antiquities Act of 1906 — signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt — authorizes executive power to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon” federal lands. Many of our nation’s most beloved national parks were initially protected as national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Zion, Bryce Canyon and Acadia.

Joshua Tree National Park, California. (Source: Ariane Sims)

With the notable exceptions of Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, every President has availed himself of this power since Theodore Roosevelt first established Wyoming’s Devils Tower in 1906. At the outset of Obama’s presidency, Bill Clinton held the record, having designated 19 national monuments. Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter closely followed with 17 and 15, respectively.

President Obama’s National Monuments

While President Obama’s environmental record is not without its blemishes — he’s approved offshore fracking in the Gulf and off the coast of California, expedited the permitting process for oil and gas pipelines, and undermined the Endangered Species Act — he FAR outdid his predecessors by establishing 29 new national monuments and expanding 4 others

Depending on your outlook, Obama either made damn good use of the Antiquities Act or he severely abused it. 

Red pencil urchin in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Controversial Designations in 2016

The friction is particularly high with respect to three national monuments that Obama established in the last six months of 2016: Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (August 24), Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument (December 28) and Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument (December 28).

Petroglyphs at Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada. (Source: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr.)

In broad brush strokes, the debate involves conservationists and Indian tribes pitted against fossil fuel and logging companies (and the politicians in their pockets), as well as local groups who argue the designations negatively impact economic opportunities in their communities.

To highlight underlying tensions, Gold Butte was the site where cattle rancher Cliven Bundy — father of militia leader Ammon Bundy, known for his 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon — directed an armed standoff with government officials in 2014. 

It’s all about who possesses the rights to use these lands and waters as they see fit.

What Can Trump Do About It?

Given the Trump administration’s predilection for the ecologically disastrous cocktail of fossil fuel infrastructure, land development and corporate interests — in addition to its apparent plan to undermine much of Obama’s legacy — it’s not a stretch to assume that steps will be taken to nullify our 44th President’s unparalleled reliance on the Antiquities Act.

But how far can Trump go?

Assuming that the 115th Congress doesn’t first render the question moot by repealing Obama’s designations on its own — a feasible outcome given current Republican leadership — there is no precedent supporting a presidential revocation of a predecessor’s national monument designation.

It simply has never been done. And U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings opined in 1938 that it could never be done. 

But the plain language of the Antiquities Act neither expressly supports nor negates the power to repeal a national monument, and Cummings’ opinion was never formally challenged in a court of law — and so no binding precedent exists either way.  

And Trump is not exactly one to follow protocol or convention.   

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. (Source: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr.)

Whether BuzzFeed’s report that “high level officials in the Trump administration” were “open to suggestions Trump could roll back Obama’s Bears Ears designation” will translate into official action remains to be seen.

But you can bet that conservation advocates will not take a fight lying down. 

As Randi Spivak, Public Lands Program Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “If the president tries to undo any national monument done by any previous president, we will see his administration in court.”

And given the issue’s high profile and hotly contested nature, a lawsuit would likely wind all the way up to the Supreme Court in a protracted process that could take years — and, quite possibly, extend past the final hours of Trump’s presidency. 

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4 Responses

  1. Freelancehobo says:

    Why would any person want to destroy an American president’s legacy? The answer can only be that they are not American in there hearts.

  2. Typo-corrected version of comment I just submitted:

    Thanks for a fine article. Your list omits Fort Monroe National Monument, established in 2011 on land that looks across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, over Hampton Roads harbor, and back through 400 years of American history, notably including both the very start of slavery in 1619 and the events in 1861 that caused slavery to begin crumbling. It’s important to report, by the way, that this national monument is in trouble whether or not the new administration goes after it. When created, it was bizarrely and unconscionably split by land for condos. It looks like the overdevelopment faction will win. Details: http://www.fortmonroenationalpark.org/

  3. Ariane Sims says:

    Thanks for the note, Steven! I must have missed Fort Monroe when combing through all of Obama’s presidential proclamations — which are now, of course, no longer accessible on the White House website. I’ve updated the article to reflect Fort Monroe’s November 1, 2011 national monument designation and am sorry to learn of its likely fate.

  4. Belinda Waymouth says:

    Nice article Ariane, something we will all be watching closely in the days/weeks/months to come. Let’s hope these designations truly are a one-way conservation tool!

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