PD Editorial: President Trump eyes a monumental land grab

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Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago, presidents have exercised their authority under the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments on some of America’s most scenic, historic and sensitive public lands.

Never before has a president tried to overturn a predecessor’s decision.

Legal scholars say it might not even be permissible. But that apparently isn’t a deterrent to President Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, Trump, who talks up coal mines and scoffs at climate science, directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review more than two dozen monuments — including six in California — created by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama since 1996.

He followed up Friday with an executive order intended to roll back Obama administration attempts to ban offshore oil drilling off the southeastern Atlantic coast and Alaska and, potentially, ease some of the safety regulations implemented after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico seven years ago.

Some fear that Trump’s order also could scale back national marine sanctuaries and clear the way for oil development off the pristine Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, where a major spill would be an environmental and economic disaster.

Regarding the monuments, Zinke promised to keep an open mind, but Trump’s misleading rhetoric about the “egregious use of government power” and “this massive federal land grab that’s gotten worse and worse and worse” left little doubt about his intent.

Let’s be clear: there is no land grab, no taking of private property in creating a national monument. Under the Antiquities Act, presidents can only designate national monuments on land already owned or controlled by the federal government.

Moreover, a monument designation doesn’t block public access or halt any present uses, including mining, grazing and drilling for oil and gas. It does, however, effectively prevent expansion of those practices.

That doesn’t mean that national monuments are an economic drag.

To the contrary, there’s ample evidence that monuments, like parks, contribute to the economic well-being of surrounding communities.

A 2014 study by Headwater Economics of 17 national monuments created in 11 Western states since 1989 found that, in all cases, nearby communities maintained or added population, personal income and per-capita income. The study found no evidence that establishing those monuments adversely affected economic growth.

Closer to home, a study of the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument and nine others created during the Obama administration estimated that 3.9 million visitors spent $180 million in nearby communities between 2011 and 2015. More than 70 percent of those expenditures were made by people who came from outside the area, presumably drawn by the presence of a national monument.

Berryessa Snow Mountain, a spectacular wilderness area with opportunities for hiking, fishing, hunting and other recreational activities, is among the monuments on the president’s hit list.

Zinke will find that it was created with, and continues to enjoy, strong support from businesses, farmers, conservation groups, elected officials and residents in seven Northern California counties.

As Rep. Mike Thompson, whose district includes much of Berryessa Stone Mountain, said, “Overturning its designation would be grossly out of step with the will of the public.”

The same is true of Giant Sequoia, Carrizo Plain and the other national monuments in California threatened by the president’s directive.

Roosevelt, another president from New York, created the first 18 national monuments, said it is “vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature.”

If there is support for eliminating national monuments, it comes from states and extraction industries that want to profit from the destruction of federal land — land that has belonged to the American public since the westward expansion of the 19th century. That would be a land grab of the worst kind.

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