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Democrats, environmental groups ready for battle over national monuments

WASHINGTON — Democrats are charging the Trump administration of using a politically driven process to undermine protections to public lands as environmental groups gird for a legal battle to stop the shrinking of national monuments under review — including two in Nevada.

Gold Butte National Monument and Basin and Range National Monument were on a list of 22 national monuments designated by presidents since Jan. 1, 1996 that President Donald Trump directed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review.

Trump ordered the review to determine whether designations under the 1906 Antiquities Act should be rescinded or scaled back.

Zinke submitted his report last Thursday, but the White House and Interior Department have not publicly released Zinke’s recommendations, prompting frustration by Democrats and environmental groups that support the designations. (Wes Rand/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“This is an extraordinary attack on the American tradition of protecting public lands that are open to all,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who complained that the Trump administration has not confirmed media reports that Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is recommended for alteration.

Merkley said the “administration is leaning on a politically driven process to undermine protections for our unique geology, biology, climate and iconic American landscapes.”

In Nevada, Republican Sen. Dean Heller said he was briefed by Zinke on the recommendations. Heller said he expected “minor” changes at both Nevada monuments.

Other Nevada lawmakers also have voiced frustration over the lack of information coming from the White House. Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., whose congressional district includes Gold Butte, did not receive notice of any changes to the national monument prior to the submission of the review by Zinke.

The Interior Department released the report summary, but it lacks details on specific monuments and focuses instead on the process.

A White House spokeswoman said the president has received Zinke’s draft report and “is currently reviewing his recommendations to determine the best path forward for the American people.”

Environmental groups are waiting to see whether the president sends the recommendations to Congress, or whether Trump decides to alter existing national monument boundaries through an executive order.

A group of 121 environmental lawyers sent a letter to Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross earlier this year stating the Antiquities Act grants presidents the authority to designate national monuments, but not the authority to rescind or alter them.

Those lawyers also noted that under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, only Congress has the authority to reduce the size of national monuments.

In the case of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in California and Oregon, the Western Environmental Law Center said the Trump administration is seeking to alter the boundaries to “gift-wrap pieces of the Pacific Northwest’s crown jewel of biodiversity for the logging industry.”

Susan Jane Brown with WELC said the group “is not surprised, but we are ready.”

In December 2016, President Barack Obama designated 335,000 acres in Nevada as the Gold Butte National Monument, and 1.3 million acres in Utah as Bears Ears National Monument, calling both cultural, historical and natural treasures.

Republicans in both states decried the designations as a federal overreach, taking away access to commercial interests like cattle grazing and mineral development.

Heller had urged Obama not to make the declaration, saying new designations, “especially ones in Nevada,” need to be considered in an open process that would require congressional support.

But then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., as well as tribal leaders, urged Obama to make the Gold Butte designation to protect the land for public use.

Reid and Titus also applauded Obama for declaring 704,000 acres in Lincoln and Nye counties as the Basin and Range National Monument in 2015.

Congressional Republicans from Nevada, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the Basin and Range declaration a federal “land grab.”

It was noted then that the designation cut off a possible rail route through Utah to the mothballed Yucca Mountain nuclear repository.

Trump proposed in his budget blueprint for 2018 reviving the licensing process on Yucca Mountain to determine whether it is a viable place to permanently store nuclear waste.

In Utah, Native-American tribes and other supporters of Bears Ears National Monument have said they plan to litigate any administration effort to scale back boundaries there.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Bishop and other Republicans in the Utah congressional delegation had urged Trump rescind the Bears Ears designation, as well as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, which falls under the Zinke review period.

Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or gmartin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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