After weeks of speculation, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke finally told President Trump which protected public lands he wants to open up to mining, logging, and drilling.
But he won’t tell us.
In a shock move that no one in the environmental or fossil-fuel sectors expected, Zinke declined to make his report public, releasing only a vague, two-page summary and leaving everyone guessing which lands, exactly, he wants to hand over (PDF).
The action marks yet another new low in the Trump administration’s secretive anti-environmental policies, which largely have been crafted behind closed doors and without the usual input from scientists and public-health experts.
At issue are about 12 million acres of national monument lands, mostly designated by Presidents Obama and Clinton. National monuments are public lands protected from development pursuant to the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowers presidents to set aside public lands around objects of historical import.
Now, all we know is that “a handful” have been selected for reduction. This “handful” includes two of the most controversial national monuments: Bears Ears (1.3 million acres) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (1.9 million acres), both in Utah, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (100,000 acres) in Oregon.
What else is in that “handful”? Like a professional gambler, Zinke hasn’t tipped his hand.
That didn’t stop the interior secretary from playing the press for fools, however. Earlier on Thursday, Zinke told the Associated Press that he wasn’t going to eliminate any monuments—a statement quickly repeated throughout major news outlets.
In fact, Zinke was never going to propose eliminating any monuments, because it’s probably against the law for Trump to do so: The Antiquities Act gives the president power to designate monuments, but only Congress can un-designate them.
Rather, the plan all along was to shrink and redefine the monuments, which has precedent and is probably within the president’s authority. So Zinke was able to generate some positive press simply by stating that he was going to do what everyone in the environmental community knew he was going to do.
Meanwhile, you can bet that the newly open areas of the monuments just happen to coincide with where the oil, timber, and other industries want to drill and log. (And fish, in the case of the undersea areas.) Of course, you can’t know for sure, because no one’s revealing the details.
Zinke’s absurd memo doesn’t even specify which extractive industries are to be allowed, instead using euphemisms like “traditional land uses.” Ironically, the most vocal proponents of the Bears Ears monument are Native American groups—but their uses apparently aren’t traditional enough to preserve the monument from a coal mine.
To be sure, none of this should come as a surprise. Federal lands have always been controversial, with both conservationists and anti-government folks (Cliven Bundy among them) enraged on opposite sides of the issue. With Trump railing against big government and with Tea Party populists crusading against the monuments, there has never been any doubt about the administration’s direction.
It’s also the case that these monuments are a classic example of government by whiplash. Obama designated so many monuments because a deadlocked Congress was unable to act. Now the monuments that were created by fiat can be shrunk by fiat.
And even conservationists know that a law designed to protect historic artifacts is being stretched beyond its original intentions—albeit by necessity, thanks to the inability of Congress to get anything done.
This is why Zinke’s memo is more ominous than it may at first appear. “No President should use the authority under the Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object,” it says at one point.
That is a predictably, but ominously, narrow interpretation of the Antiquities Act. If the only areas that may be protected are those necessary to protect a specific historical object, then you could log an entire forest right up to the object’s boundaries. Or dig a mine right next to it. Or pollute a river that runs right beside it.
And because this administration has demonstrated its total disinterest in scientific data, it will likely disregard such data regarding the dangers of such activities—especially since it’s the same kind of scientific data that got the monuments established in the first place. In the “reality-based community,” data trump private interest. But in the Trump administration, industry versus science is just he said/he said.
Conservationists were left shadowboxing in the wake of Zinke’s head-fake. One environmental group told The Daily Beast that it had already prepared lawsuits to challenge the cuts. But with Zinke declining to say anything specific, the suits will have to wait.
Meanwhile, while progressives were so up in arms about a single pipeline running through some disputed Native American land that they skipped out on a presidential election to go and protest it, it’s hard to keep attention on 12 million acres of pristine wilderness when the Trump sideshow (or high-wire act) changes every day.
As a result, it’s likely that the largest giveaway of formerly protected in American history will be taken just like most of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental actions: in secret, at the behest of the industries who stand to win, and away from the eyes of everyone else.