This week, the Trump administration is expected to release plans to potentially shrink or revoke the status of 21 national monuments — among them, the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Carrizo Plain is one of five monuments in California the administration is looking at, more than any other state.
On Wednesday, 134 businesses throughout San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern counties sent a letter to Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, in support of Carrizo Plain. The monument is a big tourist draw, especially during wildflower season in the spring.
“National monuments help nearby communities diversify economically while increasing quality of life and recreational opportunities that make our cities and towns more attractive for new residents, businesses and investment,” read the letter to Zinke.
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“For many rural towns in the region, businesses are sustained by visitors on their way to and from the Carrizo Plain National Monument who stop for a meal or book a room,” said a news release about the businesses’ support. The release also noted that Carrizo Plain provides outdoor recreational opportunities for residents, noting the presence of 4,000-year-old petroglyphs and homestead ruins, hiking and horse trails, among other activities.
Several congressional Republicans have urged Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse monument designations made by Barack Obama and other past presidents, calling them federal “land grabs” that restrict mining and energy development. But supporters say that these monuments help protect important landscapes and objects of history, including Native American antiquities.
“This is a ‘who’s side are you on?’ moment for Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, who was an Obama-era Interior official and now works at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank.
“Are they really going to try to prop up Confederate statues while shutting down national monuments in the West that help safeguard Native American history and culture?” he added, referring to Trump’s recent tweets that America’s history was “being ripped apart” by removal of Confederate statues and monuments.
In April, Trump directed Zinke to review monuments created by his predecessors and make recommendations on those that “create barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict public access to and use of federal lands, burden state, tribal, and local governments, and otherwise curtail economic growth.”
Zinke initially designated 27 monuments for review, but has since “pardoned” six of those, including Hanford Reach in Washington state, Craters of the Moon in Idaho and Sand to Snow National Monument in California. According to the League of Conservation Voters, the Interior Department received a record 2.7 million comments on the review, largely a product of environmental groups mobilizing their members.
In California, the five monuments are Carrizo Plain, Giant Sequoia, Mojave Trails, San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain, a 330,000-acre monument west of Sacramento that Obama established in 2015.
Law scholars agree that Trump has the authority to shrink the boundaries of monuments, presuming he backs up those decisions with legally defensible findings. But many legal experts doubt he has the authority to rescind monuments established by previous presidents, noting that the 1906 Antiquities Act is silent on that question.
In an Aug. 1 op-ed, conservative scholar Bruce Fein argued that only Congress has the power to rescind a monument. “The fact that no president in more than a century has attempted to revoke a national monument designation is strong evidence that the power does not exist,” Fein wrote.
Not all legal experts agree.
Todd Gaziano, executive director of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s D.C. Center, said that just because the Antiquities Act doesn’t give the president specific power to rescind monument status doesn’t mean the president can’t take that action. “The Supreme Court doesn’t have the express power to overrule an opinion from a previous court, but it does anyway,” he said.
The argument against rescinding monuments relies heavily on a 1938 opinion written by President Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general, said Gaziano, who co-authored a paper in March that lays out why the opinion is flawed. Before Trump makes his final decision on national monuments, Gaziano expects that Attorney General Jeff Sessions or the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel will write a new legal opinion. “That 1938 opinion will be wiped off the books,” he said.
That’s to be determined. If Trump attempts to yank monument status from one or more locations, environmental law organizations, tribal lawyers and affected state attorneys general are vowing to fight the decision all the way to the Supreme Court.
“We are taking very seriously these threats,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “We are prepared to take (legal) action as quickly as possible.”
McClatchy reporter Stuart Leavenworth contributed to this story.