As Democrats in Congress prepare to scrutinize President Donald Trump’s review of 27 national monuments, most of the recommendations made by ex-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke remain unfinished, seemingly stuck on the back burner as other matters consume the White House.
Trump acted quickly in December 2017 on Zinke’s recommendations to shrink two sprawling Utah monuments that had been criticized as federal government overreach by the state’s Republican leaders since their creation by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
But in the 15 months since Trump slashed the size of the Utah monuments, the president has done nothing with Zinke’s proposal to reduce two more monuments, in Oregon and Nevada, and change rules at six others, including allowing commercial fishing inside three marine monuments in waters off New England, Hawaii and American Samoa.
Zinke is now gone — after resigning in December amid multiple ethics investigations — and has joined a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. Trump has nominated as his replacement acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other corporate interests.
A sweeping public lands bill signed into law on Tuesday by Trump creates five new monuments — two of which Zinke suggested — but includes none of the reductions or other changes he recommended.
The legislation has a big impact on Utah, where it will create a new Jurassic National Monument as well as solve a decades-old fight over public lands in Emery County.
The package, which had support of Republicans, Democrats, environmental groups and hunters and fishers, established the new national monument from the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, believed to contain the most dense concentration of dinosaur bones from the Jurassic Period ever discovered.
Additionally, the legislation elevates the Golden Spike Historic Site to a historical park, a designation that comes nearly 150 years after the transcontinental railroad came together in Utah.
In Emery County, the bill increases wilderness in the area to 600,000 acres from 450,000 acres, as well as creates 248,000 more acres of recreation area instead of a more restrictive conservation area designation. It also consolidates about 100,000 acres of Utah trust lands to be more easily developed to raise money for public schools.
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, attended the bill signing in the Oval Office as did Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.
“Local voices impacted by public lands throughout our country have been heard,” Bishop said. “Today commemorates a bipartisan achievement that has been years in the making, and I’d like to thank President Trump for signing this valuable legislation into law.”
Bishop said the bill was a victory for “America’s sportsmen, local governments, public lands, and rightfully establishes monuments the right way.”
“This achievement carries great meaning for my home state of Utah," he said, “and I’m proud to see this day finally arrive.”
Zinke’s monument review was based on arguments from Trump and others that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to unilaterally declare monuments had been improperly used to protect wide expanses of land instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.
On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee will host a hearing that the Democratic majority said will focus on the “inadequate” nature of the administration’s review. Democrats allege the move to shrink the monuments was illegal and overlooked overwhelming support for keeping them intact.
Speakers include tribal leaders, a leading paleontologist and a conservationist who are expected to say their arguments for protecting the land were ignored during the review.
People and groups who advocated for the changes are disappointed with the inaction and in the dark about White House plans. Some critics of the monument review, meanwhile, say the delay shows Trump’s intent all along was to launch the sweeping review as justification to shrink the Utah monuments to appease powerful politicians such as former U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who in return supported the president and his causes.
Environmental, tribal and paleontology groups called the review an attack on protected land that jeopardized habitat rich with ancient artifacts, wildlife and dinosaur fossils and sued to challenge the shrinkage of the Utah monuments.
On the other side are commercial fishing operators who say jobs will be lost unless Trump reverses Obama's 2016 creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument off the New England coastline, where boats previously targeted squid, swordfish, tuna and other fish.
Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, recalled meeting with Zinke in 2017 to air the industry's concerns.
“We left that room, I want to say, hopeful,” she said. “And we still have some hope, but it would be great to actually have some results."
Brady said optimism that Trump would sympathize with the industry’s economic struggles “seem to be forgotten so far to date.”
Interior Department spokesman Alex Hinson said the White House has not requested information about the monument recommendations since Zinke submitted his proposals in August 2017.
A White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss deliberations said the Trump administration was still considering taking action but declined to elaborate.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva said the Utah monuments were targeted immediately for shrinking in order to open up the lands for the extraction of coal and uranium. The Arizona Democrat said in an interview that his efforts to confirm those suspicions had been frustrated when his party was in the minority, by the administration’s refusal to turn over documents related to Zinke’s recommendations.
Zinke and Trump advocated for a return to U.S. energy dominance, but, through mid-February, lands stripped from the Utah monuments haven’t been mined, according to state and federal officials who approve permits.
Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said Wednesday's hearing will focus on the Utah monuments, which he said serve as a template for what other communities could expect if more of Zinke's recommendations are acted upon.
Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney for the Earthjustice conservation organization, said she wonders if Trump has pushed the other recommendations deep onto the back burner because he doesn’t have much to gain politically in states besides Utah by enacting them.
She said the lack of an outcome for so many monuments "raises questions if this was really about abuses they saw in monument designations or whether it was really more of a political deal that he had made with the Utah senators?"
Conn Carroll, spokesman for Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee, had no immediate comment.
Hatch — the state’s other GOP senator when the recommendations were issued — defended the importance of the monument review.
“Regardless of what radical environmental groups in San Francisco say, the president’s monument review was about fixing monumental disasters and getting input from Utahns to balance the needs of local communities with the original intent of the Antiquities Act,” Hatch said in a statement.
Tribune Washington Bureau Chief Thomas Burr contributed to this article.