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Carrizo Plain won’t be eliminated; Gov. Brown says he’ll sue if Trump allows drilling

Wildflowers fill a field next to Soda Lake Road in the Carrizo Plain National Monument in March.
Wildflowers fill a field next to Soda Lake Road in the Carrizo Plain National Monument in March. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Carrizo Plain National Monument and 26 other national monuments won’t be eliminated, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced Thursday. But he said he will press for some boundary changes and left open the possibility of allowing drilling, mining or other industries on the sites, which prompted a quick reaction in Sacramento.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s top aide said in a tweet Thursday that California is ready to sue the federal government if the Trump administration decides to allow drilling, mining or timber harvesting at national monuments. The response isn’t the first time the Governor’s Office has threatened to take legal action against the White House since Donald Trump took office.

The actual report has not been released, though the Interior Department said it submitted Zinke’s monuments recommendations to Trump on Thursday.

Zinke told The Associated Press that he is recommending changes to a “handful” of sites, including unspecified boundary adjustments, and suggested some monuments are too large. In the interview with the AP, Zinke declined to reveal his recommendations for individual sites.

The former Montana congressman did not directly answer whether any monuments would be newly opened to energy development, mining and other industries Trump has championed. But he said public access for uses such as hunting, fishing or grazing would be maintained or restored. He also spoke of protecting tribal interests.

“There’s an expectation we need to look out 100 years from now to keep the public land experience alive in this country,” Zinke said. “You can protect the monument by keeping public access to traditional uses.”

The Carrizo Plain was one of five monuments in California under review by the administration, more than any other state. On Aug. 16, 134 businesses throughout San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern counties sent a letter to Zinke in support of Carrizo Plain. The monument is a big tourist draw, especially during wildflower season in the spring.

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In March, wildflower fans walk out to Soda Lake through fields of blooms near the overlook viewing area in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Despite Zinke’s reassurance that none of the monuments will be eliminated, local conservationists expressed skepticism and concern Thursday that Carrizo Plain as a whole will remain unchanged, because they have not seen the specific recommendations.

“Teddy Roosevelt must be turning over in his grave,” said Neal Havlik, the president of the Carrizo Plain Conservancy. “Carrizo, for example, was created 16 years ago and now you’re going to go back and revisit that? That’s really insulting to all the people who have done things in good faith, like building trails, improving fences, taking out unneeded fences, planting native grasses and shrubs — all that stuff has been done by people who volunteered time and resources and money to do that kind of thing. That review thumbed its nose at all of that. It’s a very disheartening thing.”

“We just hope maybe these people will do the right thing in the end, but I don’t know that they deserve any particular thanks,” Havlik added, calling the review “a really sad, sad thing.”

“Today’s announcement is one more example of how this administration disrespects our nation’s public lands,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, a conservation organization based in Santa Barbara, according to a news release. “The nation — and especially the 2.8 million people who took time out of their busy lives to participate in this process and submit comments — are left in the dark by today’s announcement. Our public lands deserve better than this. How much longer must we wait until we learn the fate of this iconic landscape right here in our own backyard?”

And nationwide, conservationists and tribal leaders responded with alarm and distrust, demanding the full release of Zinke’s recommendations and vowing to challenge attempts to shrink any monuments.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, called Zinke’s review a pretext for “selling out our public lands and waters” to the oil industry and others.

Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice president of Oceana, which has been pushing for preservation of five marine monuments included in the review, said that simply saying “changes” are coming doesn’t reveal any real information.

“A change can be a small tweak or near annihilation,” Savitz said. “The public has a right to know.”

The White House said only that it received Zinke’s recommendations and is reviewing them.

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The recommendations cap an unprecedented four-month review based on a belief that the century-old Antiquities Act had been misused by past presidents to create oversized monuments that hinder energy development, grazing and other uses.

The review raised alarm among conservationists who said protections could be lost for areas that are home to ancient cliff dwellings, towering sequoia trees, deep canyons and ocean habitats. They’ve vowed to file lawsuits if Trump attempts any changes that would reduce the size of monuments or rescind their designations.

Zinke had previously announced that no changes would be made at six national monuments — in Montana, Colorado, Idaho, California, Arizona and Washington. He’s also said that Bears Ears monument in Utah should be downsized.

Republican Utah state Rep. Mike Noel, who has pushed to rescind the designation of Bears Ears as a monument, said he could live with a rollback of its boundaries.

He called that a good compromise that would enable continued tourism while still allowing activities that locals have pursued for generations — logging, livestock grazing and oil and gas drilling.

“The eco-tourists basically say, ‘Throw out all the rubes and the locals and get rid of that mentality of grazing and utilizing these public lands for any kind of renewable resource such as timber harvesting and even some mineral production,’” Noel said. “That’s a very selfish attitude.”

Other sites that might see changes include the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in the Utah desert, consisting of cliffs, canyons, natural arches and archaeological sites, including rock paintings; Katahdin Woods and Waters, 136 square miles of forest of northern Maine; and Cascade Siskiyou, a 156-square-mile region where three mountain ranges converge in Oregon.

The marine monuments encompass more than 340,000 square miles and include four sites in the Pacific Ocean and an array of underwater canyons and mountains off New England.

In the AP interview, Zinke struck back against conservationists who had warned of impending mass sell-offs of public lands by the Trump administration.

“I’ve heard this narrative that somehow the land is going to be sold or transferred,” he said. “That narrative is patently false and shameful. The land was public before and it will be public after.”

National monument designations are used to protect land revered for its natural beauty and historical significance. The restrictions aren’t as stringent as those at national parks but can include limits on mining, timber-cutting and recreational activities such as riding off-road vehicles.

The monuments under review were designated by four presidents over the past two decades.

Zinke suggested that the same presidential proclamation process used to create the monuments could be used to enact changes.

Environmental groups contend the 1906 Antiquities Act allows presidents to create national monuments but gives only Congress the power to modify them. Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado, said he agrees with that view but noted the dispute has never gone before the courts.

Conservative legal scholars have come down on the side of the administration.

No president has tried to eliminate a monument, but some have reduced or redrawn the boundaries on 18 occasions, according to the National Park Service.

The Associated Press and Sacramento Bee reporter Taryn Luna contributed to this story.

Gabby Ferreira: 805-781-7858, @Its_GabbyF

The wildflowers are in bloom in San Luis Obispo County - especially along Highway 58 near the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The especially wet winter has led to an explosion of wildflowers along the Central Coast. The 2017 season is expected to

Johna Hurl, Carrizo Plain National Monument manager, talks about the monument's unique features during a tour to commemorate its 15th anniversary Wednesday, June 1, 2016.

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