Following in Carter’s footsteps, Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama exercised their land-protection power extensively. Obama established or enlarged 27 monuments, more than any president, and in turn drew biting criticism from Republicans.
One of Obama’s most controversial designations was Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. As my colleague Robinson Meyer reported, while locals and environmentalists agreed that much of Bears Ears should be protected, Republicans wanted at least some of the area freed up for potential commercial use or natural-gas extraction. Republicans saw the designation as an example of federal overreach.
“It’s the intrusiveness of the federal government that is unrelenting,” Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and a long-time critic of the Antiquities Act, told my colleague Michelle Cottle. This past October, Bishop’s committee marked up and approved an Antiquities Act-reform bill that would require additional review before presidents make designations, and would give them power to reduce existing monuments through the same process.
No other president has revoked a previous designation, so its legality remains in question: While the Antiquities Act grants presidents the power to declare national monuments, it does not stipulate anything about reductions or removals.
Zinke’s recommendations, according to historians I spoke with, are reminiscent of the Reagan administration. “This is certainly the most aggressive effort to open public lands since James Watt, without question,” Vig said. But while Reagan and Watt’s stance was notably conservative, Trump is the first president to take overt actions to reverse current policy.
The National Park Service defended Zinke’s work. “Secretary Zinke has taken a number of actions to ensure that national parks are protected and preserved in perpetuity by addressing the NPS maintenance backlog,” a spokesperson for the Park Service said in a statement.
If history serves as a blueprint, the future remains uncertain for Trump’s rollbacks. Ultimately, most of Reagan’s initiatives ended up failing. Watt resigned amidst extremely low approval ratings and a Democratic-majority Senate resolution to remove him. His ousting, coupled with criticism from Congress, forced Reagan to largely abandon his initial push for deregulation.
The Trump administration will also likely face its own set of challenges. Pending an official announcement by the White House expected in early December, several environmental groups have promised to bring lawsuits if any changes are made to Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was designated by Bill Clinton in 1996.
Back in 1897, Muir cited advances, from the increased protection of forests to the creation of “spacious parks in all the great cities,” as indicators of an “awakening of public opinion.” In a 2017 Western States survey, 80 percent of respondents said that existing national-monument designations for public lands should be kept in place.
Muir likely foresaw this. He ended his essay hopefully: “In the long run the world does not move backward.”