Back in December 2017, during his visit to Salt Lake City to issue proclamations drastically (and illegally) shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, President Trump announced his intention to manage the former monument lands according to local wishes rather than by what best served the nation. “The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land,” he said. “I’ve come to Utah to take a very historic action, to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.”
It certainly looked like Trump was telling the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency in charge of managing the former monument lands, to disregard the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, BLM’s “organic act” that requires it to consider the views of the general public, rather than local or state residents, when managing public lands.
After BLM’s February 6 press release announcing the publication of BLM’s new management plans for the two reduced national monuments and former monument lands, it’s abundantly clear BLM got the message. The lead quote from Interior’s acting assistant secretary for lands and minerals parrots Trump’s statement from the proclamation ceremony:
The approved plans keep the commitment of this administration to the families and communities of Utah that know and love this land the best and will care for these resources for many generations to come. These cooperatively developed and locally driven plans restore a prosperous future to communities too often dismissed and punished by unilateral decisions of those that would not listen to the voices of Utahns.
There’s not even any pretext that BLM gives a whit for the interests of anyone outside Utah, much less the land itself. This is galling given the sacred significance of Bears Ears to many Native Americans, including the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
Much of the rest of the press release reads like copy from a political campaign. Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R) rails that national monuments “should not be created over the objections of local communities.”
Utah Congressman Rob Bishop (R) bemoans the “politically-motivated monument designations by past administrations,” and warns that “well-funded special interest groups that aren’t from our state will spread outrageous misinformation” about the new management plans.
Fellow Utah Congressman Chris Stewart acknowledges that politics, not public interest, informs the plans, claiming the “Obama and Clinton Administrations snubbed and ignored Utah’s local, state, and federal elected officials. . . Thanks to this administration’s attitude towards local input, these new plans will benefit Utahns.”
It actually gets worse as a Beaver County, Utah commissioner declares her belief that the “downsizing of the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to a manageable acreage was the most amazing, selfless act of a sitting President of the United States.” (emphasis added)
These quotes are so egregiously one-sided it makes one wonder whether the politicians strong-armed BLM’s communications officials in steering the messaging for the new plans.
Even the parts of the press release meant to convey information rather than offer quotes are abjectly political. This is text from the body of the press release, not direct statements from elected or agency officials:
“The previous 1.35 million-acre BENM was designated, over the objections of state and local officials, during a lame duck presidency on December 28, 2016.”
“Similarly, the 1.72 million-acre GSENM was designated in 1996 through an abuse of the purpose and spirit of the Antiquities Act, without due consideration to state and local elected officials, or the community, and commenced decades of mistrust with the Federal government.”
Given the press release’s slant, it’s no surprise the management plans prioritizes resource extraction and development, including grazing, at the expense of archeological and ecological protection. The monument plans allow “chaining” of pinyon-juniper woodlands, which involves cutting down native trees followed by dragging a heavy chain across the cut area with a bulldozer to break up the trees’ roots and topsoil. The area is then seeded with annual grasses. The purpose is to increase forage for livestock but BLM disguises it with thinly-supported claims of wildlife- and watersheds benefits.
The plans also permit more intensive visitation of fragile cultural and archeological sites with the monument boundaries. Tribes’ calls for the protection of such sites were ignored.
Mineral extraction will be permitted under the management plan for lands excluded from the monuments by Trump’s proclamation. Cedar Mesa, formerly part of Bears Ears, is known to hold uranium and the Kaiparowits Plateau, part of Grand Staircase-Escalante for more than 20 years, has extensive coal reserves. Former GS-E lands are also threatened by alabaster mining.
The good news is that these management plans will be invalidated if we and our fellow plaintiffs prevail in our lawsuits challenging Trump’s authority to shrink national monuments. Agency action taken in furtherance of an illegal act is typically halted by the courts, so we are confident the plans will ultimately be nullified. In the meantime, we and fellow plaintiffs are keeping an eye on the ground, making sure BLM doesn’t take action to approve projects that will have ground-disturbing impacts. If it does, we are prepared to ask the courts to halt such projects until the lawsuits are final on their merits.
Our nation’s bedrock environmental law–the National Environmental Policy Act–is under attack by corporate polluters and their cronies in the Trump Administration, threatening our right to a healthy environment in the United States.
Fortunately, we have a chance to fight back against this brazen assault and defend our health and communities.
Most people have no clue what the National Environmental Policy Act is, but virtually everyone knows what it does.
Passed 50 years ago, the law ensures federal agencies analyze and fully disclose the environmental impacts of their activities. More importantly, it gives the public the right to be involved and to influence federal actions that may affect their environment.
Described as “our basic national charter for protection of the environment,” the National Environmental Policy Act has been a critical check on the activities of our federal government.
Often called NEPA (that’s pronounced “nee-puh”), the law enshrined the goal of environmental protection in the United States and enforced the need to involve the public in federal decisions. And since its passage, NEPA has worked tremendously.
It’s given communities a voice and sway when new highways are proposed through neighborhoods. It’s empowered local and state governments to stand up to federal agencies. It’s provided Tribes the tools needed to defend sacred lands. And it’s enabled watchdogs across the country to make a difference for people and the planet.
The law has truly been a ray of sunshine and for Americans.
For WildEarth Guardians, NEPA is absolutely key to protecting and restoring wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health in the American West.
For over 30 years, we’ve relied on the law to confront proposals by federal agencies to log old growth forests, dam rivers, decimate wildlife, destroy the climate, and desecrate sacred lands. We’ve relied on the law to mobilize support for safeguarding endangered species, protecting wilderness, and saving lands and waters throughout the American West.
Just last month, we filed suit in federal court to block the sale of nearly two million acres of public lands for fracking in five western states over the federal government’s failure to comply with NEPA. The case confronts the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s refusal to account for the climate impacts of authorizing more fossil fuel production and more greenhouse gas emissions.
For WildEarth Guardians, as well as countless other environmental, health, community, justice, Indigenous, and other advocates, NEPA is the backbone of our accountability efforts. It’s given us all the tools needed to stand up to private, often well-financed efforts to exploit our environment at the expense of our health and well-being.
Sadly, because groups like WildEarth Guardians have successfully used NEPA to defend our environment, it’s come under fire by polluters who view the law as an impediment to their ability to exploit communities and public resources.
Claiming the law is inefficient, cumbersome, and ineffective, corporate interests have for many years called for its gutting. Now, with Trump and his pro-polluter cadre in the White House, these interests are launching an unprecedented strike on our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection.
In a draft released on January 10, the White House Council on Environmental Quality published a proposed set of regulations that, if adopted, would effectively roll back and destroy NEPA as we know it (watch our recent Facebook Live check-in to learn more about these rollbacks).
The rules would completely rewrite regulations originally promulgated in 1982 and in doing so, completely upend our ability to hold our federal government accountable to protecting our environment. It’s not surprising that lobbyists for the nation’s polluters have described the rules as “exactly” what they recommended to the Trump administration.
Among the sweeping changes, the Trump administration’s proposal would:
- Strike language describing NEPA as “our nation’s basic charter for environmental protection” and instead describe the law as procedural and only requiring federal agencies to minimally disclose the environmental impacts of their actions;
- Severely restrict opportunities for public involvement in federal agency actions affecting the environment;
- In many situations, exempt federal agencies from having to complete environmental reviews;
- Let agencies shortcut environmental reviews and to reject science and public comments;
- Undermine transparency by allowing agencies to withhold environmental information from the public;
- Make it more difficult for watchdogs to enforce NEPA before administrative appeals boards or federal courts; and
- Prohibit federal agencies from analyzing and disclosing cumulative environmental impacts, or the impacts of their actions when added to the impacts of other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable activities.
That last proposed change is particularly distressing. The duty for the federal government to address the cumulative impacts of its actions is a critical and powerful means of ensuring agencies don’t worsen environmental problems, like climate change.
By eliminating the duty to account for cumulative impacts, the proposed changes would completely erase the federal government’s responsibility to protect our environment.
In keeping with the anti-public spirit of the proposal, the Council on Environmental Quality has also provided only 60 days for people to provide comments on the draft regulations and scheduled only two public hearings–one in Denver and one in Washington, D.C.–where only a little more than 100 people will be allowed to comment.
There’s no doubt that if approved, the proposed rules would effectively shut the American public out of the operations of the federal government, leaving our environment, our communities, our health, and our families more vulnerable than ever.
In response to Trump’s attack on NEPA, a massive coalition of advocates across the country are gearing up to fight back.
The resistance is kicking off in Denver, Colorado this Tuesday, February 11. That day, the Trump administration is holding its first of two public hearings on the proposed rollbacks.
While many will be speaking at the formal hearing, the Council on Environmental Quality provided only 112 speaking slots that were filled in less than five minutes due to extremely high demand. That’s why most people will be speaking and rallying across the street as part of the “Peoples Hearing to Protect NEPA,” an all-day action meant to uplift and empower the voices that were excluded by the Trump administration.
Groups are also pushing back in other critical ways. Last month, WildEarth Guardians joined hundreds of other groups in demanding the Trump administration extend the public comment period for the proposed rollbacks and calling for more public hearings.
Congressional leaders are also rising up to defend NEPA. In a bipartisan letter last month, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, a Democrat, and Representative Francis Rooney of Florida, a Republican, were joined by hundreds of other members of the U.S. House in calling on the Council on Environmental Quality to back down from the proposed rollbacks.
In the meantime, now, more than ever, we need your voice to help derail these terrible rollbacks to NEPA. If you haven’t yet, sign our petition and join thousands of others who are rising up to speak out for our environment and our voice.
Together, we can thwart Trump and his gang of polluters in the White House. Together, we can #ProtectNEPA.
On September 30, 2019, the federal district court for the District of Columbia issued orders denying government motions to dismiss the lawsuits seeking to overturn President Trump’s 2017 proclamations shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. We are plaintiffs in two of the suits.
These orders are not victories on the merits of our claims that President Trump acted illegally in dismantling the two monuments in Utah. They are nonetheless noteworthy, as the judge has rejected the government’s positions that the lawsuits must be thrown out for having no validity under the law and because the court lacks authority to even address the merits of our claims.
In our complaints, we and our co-plaintiffs claim the Antiquities Act—the law that grants a President the authority to designate national monuments—does not authorize the President to reduce or revoke existing monuments. Without express authorization from Congress, we suggest, Trump cannot diminish national monuments because a President’s authority over public lands is only as great as the power delegated by Congress. (The Constitution’s Property Clause reserves power over the public lands to Congress; the Antiquities Act is a delegation of that power to the President, but limits it to designating monuments.)
This is a straightforward, conventional, interpretation of both the Constitution and the Antiquities Act. But the government’s lawyers argued that not only does the President have the power to diminish existing monuments despite no such language in the Act, but that that power is wholly within the President’s discretion and therefore can’t be reviewed by the courts. The government’s lawyers maintained that both parts of their argument were so settled as a matter of law that the court should not even consider our arguments.
The judge wasn’t having it. The orders denying the motions to dismiss state that a “decision regarding the Antiquities Act will necessarily be one on the merits.” In other words, it’s certainly not settled that the President has authority to gut national monuments.
Again, we haven’t prevailed on our claim that Trump’s order to shrink the two monuments was beyond his authority, and thus illegal. But the judge’s ruling to deny the motions to dismiss is good news. We have sound legal arguments and are still on course to ultimately succeed. We’re confident Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante will be reinstated to their original glory.