Declaring an end to “another egregious abuse of federal power,” President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered a review of about two dozen national monuments, a move that environmentalists say will roll back protections on historic sites and scenic places where logging, mining, oil drilling and commercial fishing are often limited.
The executive order could put as many as seven California national monuments up for reconsideration, ranging from Carrizo Plain National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo County to Giant Sequoia National Monument in the Sierra, according to environmentalists.
The Carrizo Plain provides a home to several endangered plant and wildlife species in nearly 204,000 acres of vast open grasslands, where wildflowers sometimes carpet the the valley floor. The wildflower-rich grassland was designated a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 2001 and sits adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest.
“Today’s executive order is an attack on public lands and an affront to millions Americans who live, work and play in these spectacular landscapes,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. “We should be honoring and celebrating these majestic landscapes instead of opening them up to profit and plunder.”
Twelve monuments have been established in California since 1996, but only seven of them fall under the order, according to the San Francisco Chronicle: Berryessa Snow Mountain, which sprawls across Napa, Solano, Yolo and four other counties in Northern California; Giant Sequoia, in the Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierra; Cascade-Siskiyou, in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California; San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles; and two desert monuments that were pushed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sand to Snow and Mojave Trails, and Carrizo Plain.
Marina Gorbis of Menlo Park, who recently visited Carrizo Plain National Monument to witness its “superbloom,” said she cherished its protected status. “The place is majestic,” she said. “Several times while walking through untrodden vast fields vibrating with color, the four of us just raised our arms in expression of pure joy and appreciation for the beauty of nature.”
Trump’s executive order does not strip any monument of a designation. Rather, the order instructs Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to issue recommendations to the president on whether to rescind, reduce or modify the monuments. On Tuesday, ahead of the signing, Zinke suggested that restrictions on development might be changed to accommodate a “multiple use” approach to their management.
Republicans have long sought to rein in the 110-year-old law that gives presidents the power to establish national monuments without approval from Congress.
Environmental groups say they are prepared for a battle.
“Catering to the extractive industries and their allies in Congress, this order is part of a much broader, well-funded agenda to seize America’s best assets and turn them into cash cows for oil, gas and mining companies,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “We will fight every last rollback on behalf of the American people.”
Specifically, the order directs the Department of the Interior to review the designation of monuments that are larger than 100,000 acres. That would include 27 that have been established since 1996.
That could include larger monuments in California, according to environmental groups:
▪ San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, representing more than 70 percent of Los Angeles County’s scarce open space.
▪ Mojave Trails National Monument, a desert landscape that bridges the area between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.
▪ Giant Sequoia National Monument, which contains 33 redwood groves west of Visalia in the Sierra.
▪ Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, about 330,000 acres located just north of Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area in Lake, Napa, Mendocino, Solano and Yolo counties.
Smaller monuments are also vulnerable if the federal government finds the designation was made without enough public input or coordination
California has reached out to the federal government to offer its help in managing the lands, said John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “We’d like to see federal protections maintained for these special places. There is state support and cooperation for California’s national monuments. We’ve talked with the federal government about our openness to help manage these lands, and we’d like to continue that conversation.”
Two monuments, both in Utah, are expected to get special attention: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the state’s remote desert canyon lands, created by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears National Monument, set aside by President Barack Obama in the final days of last year.
Designation of these sites infuriated Republicans in the state, who asked Trump to take the unusual step of reversing their status.
During a signing ceremony at the Department of the Interior on Wednesday, Trump said the order would “give power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.”
Trump accused the Obama administration of using the act to “unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control” – a practice he described as “a massive federal land grab.”
“Somewhere along the way the Act has become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest,” Zinke said ahead of the signing. “And it’s easy to see why designations in some cases are viewed negatively by those local communities that are impacted the most.”
At issue is the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to reduce looting and theft of pottery and other artifacts in New Mexico and other areas, gives presidents the power to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments by proclamation.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute applauded the move by Trump.
“The huge National Monument designations of recent decades have little to do with the original purpose of the Antiquities Act, which was to allow the executive branch to protect newly discovered archaeological and cultural sites on federal lands from being pillaged,” director Myron Ebell said.
Associated Press and Mercury News Staff Writers Paul Rogers and Katy Murphy contributed to this article.