ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Trump administration appears to be moving ahead with plans to dramatically reduce the size of some national monuments that protect federal public lands. Today was the deadline for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to submit his recommendations to the president as part of a sweeping review of 27 national monuments.
NPR's Kirk Siegler is here now to talk about it. He's been covering the review. Good to have you in the studio, Kirk.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Ari.
SHAPIRO: I said, sweeping review. How sweeping is it? What's actually being looked at here?
SIEGLER: Well, let's start with an important distinction. This review looks at national monuments that are a hundred thousand acres or more in size. We're not talking about historical sites like out on the National Mall or battlefields. And so a lot of this review also looks at monuments that were designated during the Obama administration by executive order.
SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about the recommendations that the interior secretary gave the president today?
SIEGLER: Well, frankly we don't have a lot of information just yet. Secretary Zinke is indicating he's not recommending any of the monuments be eliminated altogether and that 6 of the monuments in the review of 27, including the Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana, the Sand to Snow here in California, won't see any changes at all.
But I've got to say. You know, the statement that we have from the Interior Department is pretty vague at best. Officials aren't telling us about which of the other monuments they may shrink. And you know, this is fueling a lot of speculation, a lot of rhetoric but few facts. Now, the secretary was in Montana today, touring a wildfire, and he refused to take any questions about the review. So we know only that he told the Associated Press today that a, quote, "handful of the monuments may be reduced in size."
SHAPIRO: What's the reason for this review? Is it just about undoing Obama administration executive orders?
SIEGLER: Well, I think that could be part of the story, but a lot of this review can be traced back to Utah. It's a conservative state where about two-thirds of the land is under federal control. And you know, there are tensions about federal overreach of land management that date back decades there but, specifically in this case, to President Clinton when he designated the Grand Staircase National Monument largely in secret without the input of Utah politicians. And then last year of course came the Bears Ears National Monument designated under President Obama.
SHAPIRO: And that was very controversial. Native Tribes said this was sacred land. There was pushback from some Utah State officials.
SIEGLER: Right. It was controversial in particular in rural areas where some people, you know, oppose to designations like this. They're opposed to it because they think - and rightly so - that a national monument adds additional protections. It prevents future development, like, puts mining and oil and gas drilling off the table.
And you know, Utah's Congressional Delegation had been lobbying the new administration from day one to reverse these designations, and that's partly, if not largely, what brought on this whole review. And it's, you know, widely expected that Bears Ears for sure will get reduced dramatically. Zinke has said as much about that earlier this summer.
SHAPIRO: What are the actual legal mechanics of an administration doing this? Can they just order it, and it is so? I mean what difference does it make that they're reducing rather than eliminating these monuments?
SIEGLER: Well, everything here is gray. It's almost cliche. The law is gray, right? And this continues to be a big question. Presidents can designate national monuments that protect federal public land by executive order. This goes back to a law from President Teddy Roosevelt, who was one of the early champions of protecting land in the West, especially when the East at that time had gotten carved up. There are some cases, Ari, where presidents have made minor changes to the boundaries of national monuments. But really prior legal precedent shows that only Congress can come in and actually eliminate or change a national monument.
The stakes here are huge. I can't overstate that. And you know, anytime you're talking about taking away protections for public lands, there's going to be a big fight. And Secretary Zinke he has indicated on more than one occasion that the law here may need to be tested.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Kirk Siegler, good to see you. Thanks.
SIEGLER: Good to see you, too. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.