Zinke Antiquities decision in Roosevelt's shadow

Ryan Zinke’s rocky career as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior took a nosedive last week with the release of a leaked document showing some startlingly sloppy work on national monument review.

Given that this review has been one of Zinke’s most important tasks to date as Interior secretary, he is fast heading for a failing grade if he does not improve his performance immediately.

It’s not enough to throw the occasional bone to Montanans who desperately want to keep our treasured public lands protected. Zinke has to do a better job of grounding his decisions on solid, factual information; communicating that information and his reasoning to the public; and maintaining transparency throughout the process.

So far, however, Zinke has set a troubling pattern of opacity, poor communication and flimsy fact-checking. The leaked draft of his report to President Trump on national monuments is only the latest, most alarming example of this trend.

Shortly after Zinke was confirmed as Interior secretary, the Trump administration directed him to undertake a review of large-scale national monuments that had been designated or expanded within the past 20 years. Zinke focused on 27 designations in particular, five of which are marine monuments. One of them was Montana’s Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, which has since been removed from the list of designations under review, to the relief of many.

From the start, Zinke pledged to ensure public involvement and transparency throughout the review process. Yet also from the start, he sent conflicting signals hinting that the reduction of at least some monuments was a foregone conclusion.

The biggest hint was the drastically shortened timeframe for a decision on the Bears Ears national monument in Utah. This particular monument, designated during the final days of the Obama administration, was allowed only a 15-day public comment period, while the other monuments were allowed 60 days to gather public comment.

And despite the overwhelming number of comments in favor of maintaining the Bears Ears designation as is, it nevertheless comes as no surprise that Zinke is recommending the monument be reduced in size. The leaked report shows that the Interior Department is recommending reductions or changes to 10 national monuments.

The surprising thing was that the report also includes a short list of new monument recommendations, including the Badger-Two Medicine area in Northwest Montana. Granted, the report is only a draft and presumably not ready for official release.

Yet its contents, and the fact that it was released on the same day as an official, frustratingly vague public report, shows that something other than facts or public preference is driving Zinke’s decisions.

The leaked report goes into much more detail on the department’s concerns with 10 national monuments, including Bears Ears, four of which cover large land areas in Western states and three of which were created or expanded by President Obama.

Near the end of the 19-page document, Zinke also suggests that Trump consider designating three new monuments: a Union training center for African-American soldiers in the Civil War in Kentucky, the home of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine in Northwest Montana.

The Badger-Two Medicine near Glacier National Park is absolutely deserving of protections. Many, most notably the Blackfeet Tribe, have been working hard for years to cancel energy leases in the region, which is considered sacred to the tribe and prized for its special ecological attributes.

In fact, last year former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell exercised her authority to cancel remaining leases, although two leaseholders are fighting that decision in court.

The reason these new monument recommendations came as such a surprise is because they appear to come out of nowhere. Designate the Badger-Two Medicine a national monument? Whose idea was this? Did someone request that Zinke consider it? Will there be opportunities for public comment? When will Montanans get to weigh in?

Zinke’s office isn’t saying, instead directing “all questions regarding the document” to the White House.

If the current administration justified the call for national monument review by stating that previous administrations did not offer sufficient opportunity for public involvement, or were rushed, then this memo would seem to invalidate that argument.

Worse, the document appears to contain a number of significant errors. New Mexico’s Sen. Mark Heinrich, whose state is home to two national monuments identified in the memo, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that the memo falsely claims that roads were closed, hunting and fishing access was limited and ranching was stopped due to national monument designation. It also incorrectly asserts that one national monument falls along the Mexican border.

Heinrich questioned the Bureau of Land Management’s John Ruhs, who told the committee that his office was not involved in the memo’s preparation and was not given the opportunity to fact-check it.

Perhaps such basic errors could be excused if the report contained any concrete information on just what, exactly, Zinke is recommending. Neither the public report nor the leaked memo contain specific boundary readjustment suggestions, maps or anything else that might be used to determine what might actually change as a result of this months-long national monument review.

Instead, they draw broad strokes that only serve to paint an open door for timber, grazing, coal and oil industry interests.

If Zinke intends for his review to accomplish anything more than that, then he has a lot of explaining to do.

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