Washington • President Donald Trump, who blasted the Antiquities Act in carving up two Utah national monuments nearly a year ago, used the authority under that law Friday to name a new monument in Kentucky days before the midterm election.
Trump, who shrank the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah by 2 million acres in December, employed the Antiquities Act to create the Camp Nelson National Monument in Kentucky, protecting the historic site that has local and congressional support but prompting critics to say the move was purely political.
Camp Nelson — a former supply depot and Union Army hospital that served as a recruiting center for African-American troops and a refuge for freed slaves — sits inside a House district where incumbent GOP Rep. Andy Barr faces a close race against Democrat Amy McGrath.
“Camp Nelson and its role in our nation’s journey from Civil War to civil rights deserves to be protected, full stop,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a former senior Interior Department official.
“But we can’t ignore the deep irony and injustice in President Trump using the same authority to protect one chapter of America’s story, while illegally stripping protections for another national monument that honors Native American history and culture,” Kelly continued. “Given this announcement comes mere days before a tight election in Kentucky, we must also question whether the historic site is being used as a political pawn.”
The Camp Nelson monument is the first Trump has designated under the 1906 law that has been used by every president since Teddy Roosevelt to preserve public lands.
Last December, Trump flew to Utah to severely diminish the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments created by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively. In doing so, Trump joined a chorus of Utah GOP elected officials charging that the Democratic presidents had overstepped their authority and were denying the voice of locals.
“Past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit and intent of the century-old law known as the Antiquities Act,” Trump then declared at the Utah Capitol, adding that, “These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home.”
Unlike the two Utah monuments, the new one in Kentucky has support from local officialdom, and the House overwhelmingly passed legislation sponsored by Barr to turn the camp into a monument. The Senate has yet to pass companion legislation.
The Camp Nelson monument is tiny compared to Utah’s now-smaller monuments, 525 acres total as opposed to 1 million acres remaining in three parts of the original Grand Staircase monument and 200,000 in two pieces of the Bears Ears' initial designation.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who heads the House Natural Resources Committee and is a strident opponent of the Antiquities Act, noted Saturday that more than 400 House members had voted for Barr’s legislation to create the monument and that it enjoys local support.
“The monument President Trump announced today will serve as a historic marker for the commonwealth of Kentucky and memorialize a site important to African-American soldiers in the Civil War,” Bishop said. “I appreciate President Trump joining the House in recognizing the unique historic nature of Camp Nelson and applaud the president for obeying the letter of the law in using his congressionally delegated authority to create national monuments.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Saturday in visiting the monument that Trump used the Antiquities Act as it was supposed to be applied: preserving a site in the smallest form needed to protect it.
“The camp tells the story about Americans who risked absolutely everything they have and everyone they love to fight for their freedom, the cause of liberty and to preserve the Union,” Zinke said. “I thank the president for using the Antiquities Act as it was truly intended, and I can think of no better place for his use of the act than to recognize African-Americans for the sacrifices they made for this country and for the contributions they made for all Americans' freedom than by elevating Camp Nelson to national monument status.”
Still, environmental groups charged that Trump was being hypocritical in using the Antiquities Act after being so highly critical of it previously, especially because the Bears Ears monument was sought by Native Americans who consider the southeastern Utah area sacred.
“There is no dispute that Congress gave presidents the authority to establish national monuments on public lands and waters,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “That grant of authority did not, however, also convey the power to eliminate or dismantle those places.”
SUWA is one of several conservation groups and tribes that sued Trump, Zinke and other government officials immediately after the president dismantled the two Utah monuments. The lawsuit, which contends the Antiquities Act allows the creation of a monument but not the removal of such a designation, continues in federal court in Washington.
Dan Hartinger, deputy director for parks and public lands defense at The Wilderness Society, said that his group “wholeheartedly” supported Camp Nelson as a monument
“However, all national monuments that recognize our diverse history must be protected and honored — including Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, where a coalition of sovereign tribal nations proposed and advocated for the monument,” Hartinger said. “Honoring Camp Nelson’s role in advancing equality while simultaneously working to strip protections from Bears Ears is disrespectful and hypocritical."
The Center for Western Priorities' executive director, Jennifer Rokala, found irony in Trump using a law to create a monument while single-handedly working to weaken the Antiquities Act.
“If his attempts to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments were to succeed, it would make his designation today protecting Camp Nelson equally temporary,” Rokala said. “America’s national monuments are monuments to our history and heritage, from African-Americans who served in the Civil War at Camp Nelson, to Native Americans from five tribes who honor Bears Ears as their ancestral homeland. An attack on one monument is an attack on all monuments, so it is long past time for President Trump and Secretary Zinke to stop undermining and start honoring the legacy of all Americans.”
Bishop, in a statement released Saturday, said the president’s action to create the Camp Nelson monument should be codified by Congress — and soon.
“I am hopeful the Senate will follow the House and the president’s lead in giving Camp Nelson the prominence and security it deserves through the force of congressionally enacted law,” Bishop said, praising Barr for leading the effort to seek monument status.
Barr’s race is considered a toss-up by the political handicapper the Cook Political Report and a New York Times/Siena College poll shows the incumbent with a 1 point lead ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Just over 22 years ago, Republicans slammed Clinton for creating the Grand Staircase monument, arguing that he was doing so to shore up political points with his Democratic base right before the general election.