Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended President Donald Trump’s decision to shrink or modify several national monuments, saying Tuesday that opponents were lying about the real power of the federal Antiquities Act.

“The president was correct in asking for a review,” Zinke said in a conference call with reporters. “Public lands are for public use and not for special interests. No land, not one square inch, has been transferred or sold. This is not about energy. There is no oil and gas assets, no mine within Bears Ears (National Monument) before or after. The claim that somehow President Trump stole land is nefarious, false and a lie.”

Outdoor gear company Patagonia was one of the most vocal critics of Trump’s Monday announcement that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah would be greatly reduced in acreage. The company replaced its webpage with a black banner stating “The President Stole Your Land.”

“I think it’s shameful and appalling they would blatantly lie in order to gain money for their coffers,” Zinke said of Patagonia’s accusation. “Sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuits. It’s based on doing what’s right.”

Patagonia hasn’t filed suit, but numerous other organizations and Indian tribes have announced legal challenges to Zinke’s recommendations. On Monday, lawyers representing the Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian tribes filed suit to retain the original size of Bears Ears. Another coalition including The Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club has also sued to block changes to the Utah monuments.

In the same call, Zinke repeated an earlier proposal to create a new, 130,000-acre monument in Montana protecting the Badger-Two Medicine region surrounded by the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

“I think there’s a really great opportunity for the Badger-Two Medicine as the number of crowds and visitors continue to break records in Glacier (National Park),” Zinke said. “Here’s a virtually untapped area and a chance to do it right. There’s the possibility of revenue from tourism and an untapped culture. I think it’s deserving of monument status.”

The Badger-Two Medicine area has been controversial since the 1980s, when Reagan Administration officials granted energy exploration leases there without proper environmental review or consultation with the Blackfeet Tribe.

Federal court decisions have found the leases invalid and a lengthy review of the area’s significance to the Blackfeet declared it a Traditional Cultural District in 2014. Blackfeet tribal leaders personally pitched their concern for the Badger-Two Medicine to Zinke at a ceremony in Glacier National Park just days after he was named Interior secretary in March.

On the press call, Zinke reaffirmed his policy of national “energy dominance” through developing public lands for oil, gas, coal and other natural resources. But he added he had a track record of opposing energy development and mines where they weren’t appropriate.

“I want to make sure there’s no takings” in the Badger-Two Medicine, Zinke said. “There’s a deal to be made on how to retire those leases. I grew up in the foothills of Glacier Park. I have great respect for the Blackfeet Nation. That area is sacred to the Blackfeet.”

Montana Wilderness Association Rocky Mountain Front field director Casey Perkins said Zinke appeared to be respecting the wishes of one Indian tribe while ignoring the desires of others.

“While we appreciate Sec. Zinke recommending national monument protection for the Badger-Two Medicine, we find it reprehensible that he's doing so at the same time he's stripping protection from a place that is as sacred to five sovereign southwestern nations as the Badger-Two Medicine is to the Blackfeet,” Perkins wrote in an email. “We believe that Badger-Two Medicine deserves permanent protection, but any discussion of that must originate with the Blackfeet.”

Safari Club International President Paul Babaz commended Zinke and Trump.

“We are thankful that this administration — unlike the previous — conducted a thorough review of these monuments, and listened to the input of hunters and sportsmen when making this important decision,” Babaz wrote in an email. “With this announcement, the Trump Administration is affirming the benefit of traditional land uses, such as hunting and recreational shooting, to our nation's resource management.”

In his press call, Zinke said his review of the Antiquities Act of 1906 uncovered many examples of misuse by past presidents. He focused on the law’s definition of “object of historic or scientific interest,” which he said had been used to cover concepts such as biodiversity, viewsheds, remoteness and World War II bombing craters.

Trump ordered the review on April 26. Zinke originally targeted 27 monuments for inspection that were designated between 1996 and the present, were larger than 100,000 acres, and/or were designated without proper public outreach. That original list included Montana’s Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, but Zinke didn’t recommend it for border reduction or management change. 

He noted that past presidents have reduced monument sizes at least 18 times using the act’s authority. Three of the four monuments he recommended for shrinkage were created or expanded by President Barack Obama, while Grand Staircase-Escalante was created by President Bill Clinton.

In addition to Badger-Two Medicine, Zinke’s final report suggested creating new monuments at Camp Nelson, a Union Army training center for black soldiers in Kentucky; and the home of Civil Rights hero Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.

Zinke’s monument review called for cutting Bears Ears from 1,353,000 acres to 228,000 acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante from about 1.9 million acres to about 1 million. He called for the removal of a water irrigation district from Nevada’s 296,937-acre Gold Butte National Monument, but didn’t have an exact acreage figure for the change. And he decided to remove thousands of acres of state timberland from the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon.

Monuments proposed for management changes within the same boundaries included Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine; Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico; Pacific Remote Islands, Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico; and Rose Atoll.

Zinke advised Trump to support legislation by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, creating a co-management format for monuments with significant Indian presence. Those would include Bears Ears, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Gold Butte and Rio Grande del Norte national monuments. He added that the Badger-Two Medicine proposed monument would be appropriate for co-management with the Blackfeet Tribe.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.