Interior Secretary lists concerns with Nevada's national monuments, doesn't announce any decisions
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke concluded his multi-day, western tour Sunday in Nevada, where he voiced concerns about the state’s two national monuments but stopped short of making any declarations.
“I haven’t decided anything,” Zinke said from a ridge in Bunkerville that looks out toward Gold Butte National Monument. “What I did find is they’re large. They’re beautiful country.”
Wearing a cowboy hat, khaki pants and a red shirt, Zinke called himself an “advocate for monuments” but also enumerated concerns that will weigh in his recommendations to President Donald Trump, who ordered a review of certain national monuments in April.
Nevada’s two national monuments — Gold Butte and Basin and Range, both of which former President Barack Obama created — are among those under review.
Chief among Zinke’s concerns: preserving traditional uses of the land, such as hunting, fishing and ranching, as well as maintaining public access and allowing for infrastructure upgrades. For instance, Zinke said a monument designation automatically draws more people to an area, creating a need for things like road improvements and bathrooms.
Aside from logistical issues, Zinke also touched on a decidedly more local concern — way of life. Some of the land’s traditional uses, he said, carry as much cultural value as the geographical landmarks protected by the designations.
His comments came from the tiny, unincorporated town that became the center of the national conversation about federal land three years ago when armed militiamen swarmed the area to come to the aid of rancher Cliven Bundy. The Bureau of Land Management had rounded up some of Bundy’s cattle after his yearslong refusal to pay fees or obtain permits for allowing his animals to graze on public land.
“I’m not going to address that issue,” Zinke said in response to a question about the Bundy situation.
The secretary did, however, address a worry raised by many monuments advocates — that lifting or shrinking the designations could lead to privatization of the land.
“I’m an advocate to never sell or transfer public land and so is the president,” he said. “The monuments were public lands before the designations, and they’ll be public lands after.”
Zinke said his review of the monuments involves talking to governors, local officials, congressional representatives, monument advocates, community members and Native American tribes, among other stakeholders. He did not specify which Nevada politicians he had spoken to or the nature of those conversations.
Trump’s executive order directs Zinke to review national monuments established since 1996 that are more than 100,000 acres in size. The forthcoming recommendations based on that review could result in monuments being rescinded, resized or modified.
The action was viewed by some as a strong rebuke of Obama’s pro-land conservation policies. Obama used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to create or expand 34 national monuments, setting a presidential record in the process.
Zinke defended Trump’s decision to examine the monument designations, saying the president had “courage” to start a healthy dialogue about executive power.
The Interior Secretary also brushed aside concern that litigation may follow any steps taken to reduce the size of or eliminate national monuments.
“I don’t think there’s too much question that a monument can be adjusted,” said Zinke, a former Montana Congressman. “Whether a monument can be rescinded or not, that is a question for the courts, but I’m going to do the right thing.”
As far as 76-year-old Sam Reber is concerned, the right thing would be to scale down the size of the national monuments. The lifelong Mesquite resident said the designations seem to grow larger each time, endangering traditional uses of the land.
“It’s just way too big,” he said while waiting to listen to Zinke speak. But he added: “We’re environmentalists. We’d like to see some of that stuff saved.”
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto released a video coinciding with Zinke’s visit to Nevada. The nearly three-minute clip shows the Nevada delegate in her mailroom, where she held letters from constituents and urged Zinke to protect the national monument designations.
Zinke has until Aug. 24 to submit his monument recommendations to the president. He had to cut his Nevada trip short by one day to attend a Cabinet meeting in the nation’s capital.
“Any day out of Washington, D.C., is a good day,” he said. “Any day when you can tour the beauty and treasures our national parks and our monuments and meet really good people, that’s the best part of my job.”