In a leaked memo obtained by the Washington Post on September 17th, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that President Trump modify or reduce 10 national monuments. The report is the culmination of a months-long review of 27 U.S. national monuments (the review was limited specifically to national monuments created under the 1906 Antiquities Act since January 1996, and only those of at least 100,000 acres).
If these proposed reductions come to fruition, they would be the largest elimination of land protections in U.S. history.
Even if they don’t, there are numerous other threats mounting against public lands, any one of which could set new precedents for the way those lands are managed and funded.
What are all these threats, and what can we trail runners do about it?
Zinke’s national monuments proposal
Zinke’s 19-page memo suggests the Trump administration “protect objects and prioritize public access; infrastructure upgrades, repair and maintenance; traditional use; tribal cultural use; and hunting and fishing rights.”
Some of these things sound promising – “protecting objects and prioritizing public access,” maintaining “tribal cultural use.” But there are threats mixed in, too—namely, prioritizing “traditional uses.” This means, essentially, opening monuments to grazing, logging, coal mining, oil-and-gas extraction and commercial fishing in marine monuments.
While the memo was scant on specifics, and the White House has declined to comment on the leaked papers, experts like Mark Squillace, a professor of law who served as assistant to former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, believe that the changes could be drastic.
“We do not yet have specific details regarding the scope of the likely reductions, but the early indications are that they will be substantial,” Squillance says.
Bears Ears National Monument, Utah
Perhaps no other monument has become so symbolic of the fight to protect public lands than Bears Ears, an expanse of desert red rock, canyons and mountains in Southeastern Utah designated as a national monument by President Obama in 2016. Zinke recommended shrinking Bears Ears from its original 1.35 million acres down to just 160,000 acres, the “smallest area compatible” with management of the over 100,000 archeological sites within the monument’s current boundaries.
Runner Luke Nelson spent four days running through Bears Ears National Monument in April. “In the roughly 150 miles that I traveled on foot, I learned that [Bears Ears] contains more cultural heritage than I could have ever imagined,” he says. “Around nearly every corner in the canyons there were petroglyphs, pictographs or nearly intact structures. It was simply astounding.”
The proposed reduction has been applauded by farmers, ranchers and the oil industry as it opens previously protected lands to expanded development. However, in reality, the region’s relative remoteness makes energy extraction an unattractive option.
Bears Ears contains hundreds of miles of runnable slickrock trail, and many worry that these reductions will hinder access to those trails. (For trail beta, check out The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes, by Morgan Sjogren.)
Zinke’s memo does suggest that acerage taken out of national monuments could be turned into national recreation areas. This designation, reserved for areas that attract a high volume of users, are usually designated by congress and include a land-management plan prepared by the land agency that is responsible for it—typically either the National Forest Service or National Park Service. However, designation as a national recreation area won’t protect those lands from budget cuts, which could halt trail maintenance and park law enforcement.
Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada
Zinke’s memo also recommends downsizing Gold Butte National Monument, 296,9337 acres of rugged red-rock desert less than 100 miles from Las Vegas. Gold Butte, which contains historic dwellings, ancient petroglyphs, mountains and sections of the Mojave desert, was designated a national monument in December of 2016 under President Obama. The given objective behind Zinke’s proposed cuts is to “protect historic water rights,” though he has proposed no new specific borders.
These cuts would leave open Gold Butte to potential drilling, mining and increase grazing, though the primary concern is that potential boundaries would leave archeological sites and artifacts as well as historic water sources vulnerable.
“These are fabulous running trails that offer incredible views, scenery, flora and fauna,” says Terri Rylander, a trail runner and board member of conservation group Friends of Gold Butte. Rylander is primarily worried that reductions to the national monument boundaries could result in reductions in funding. Gold Butte relies on its designation as a national monument to fund everything from staffing to adequate signage and trail maintenance.
“Anything that’s done to take away those protections threatens those benefits,” she says.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
America’s largest national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante (1,700,000 acres) was designated by Bill Clinton in 1996 and sits in south-central Utah. At the time of its designation, Grand Staircase-Escalante was contentious for halting a coal-mine project. The monument remains divisive, as Utah Governor Gary Herbert remains a staunch opponent to what he considered a federal land grab.
In his memo, Zinke points out that Grand Staircase-Escalante has “an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits,” an observation that has many conservationists worried that proposed cuts would spur unprecedented oil-and-gas development in the area. Zinke’s recommendation would also remove limits on motorized vehicle use in the monument.
There is much for trail runners to lose if Grand Staircase-Escalante’s borders are reduced. Miles of trail and quiet wilderness could fall prey to energy development or encroachment by roads.
Nelson has fond memories of sharing Grand Staircase-Escalante with his family. “Seeing my young children having an incredible adventure exploring slot canyons and streams of the monument still brings a smile to my soul,” he says. “It was during that trip that I think they started to gain an appreciation for wild and protected places, and it a lit a fire in me to protect these spaces.”
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon
The expansive Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument rests on Oregon’s southern border, and is a favorite of Pacific Northwest trail runners. The 86,774-acre monument was designated by President Clinton in 2000.
Zinke recommends removing an unspecified amount of land, citing logging as the primary reason. (The current management plan allows for controlled logging to help maintain a healthy forest ecosystem.) The expansion of logging practices not directly associated with forest health could hinder access to some of the monument’s 50 miles of trails—including a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.
While the previous four monuments have gotten the most attention—and are, perhaps, the most consequential to trail runners—six other monuments face management changes that could threaten local ecosystems.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
The 87,563-acre expanse of Katahdin Woods and Waters was acquired privately by Burst Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, who bought the land in chunks after years of unsuccessfully lobbying the state to buy it. She donated it to the federal government just last year, when it got its official designation from President Obama. The monument features a network of trails through old-growth forests, including a section of the Appalachian Trail. After voicing support for the monument in June, Zinke is now recommending changing the land’s management to allow for future logging.
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico
Designated by Obama in 2014, this monument lies just north of the border with Mexico. The mountains sprawl for 496,330 acres, towering above a desert that is home to numerous animal species as well as Native American rock art and ancient dwellings. Zinke’s memo points to a modification in management plan that would allow for livestock running and cattle grazing in the area.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico
Obama designated Rio Grande del Norte in 2013, setting aside 242,555 acres of northern New Mexico high desert. Zinke’s memo notes that ranchers have been discouraged from renewing area grazing permits and aims to protect “traditional use” that would likely include cattle running and grazing, as well as authorizing tribal management in designated areas of the monument.
Zinke’s memo also recommends reinstating commerical fishing in these three marine national monuments:
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, Massachusetts
Just over 100 miles southeast of Cape Cod, this monument protects abundant and diverse coral species and deep-sea ecosystems.
Pacific Remote Island National Monument
Located south and west of Hawaii, this chain of islands and atolls comprises one of the largest and most biodiverse areas within U.S. jurisdiction, including coral reefs and marine wildlife. The monument was established by George W. Bush in 2009 and expanded by Obama in 2014.
Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, South Pacific Ocean
Created by George Bush in 2009, Rose Atoll is home to many threatened and endangered marine species.
How likely is it that these management changes and boundary reductions will come to pass?
According to Squillace, it would take an Act of Congress to shrink or abolish these monuments, which seems unlikely as this proposal would likely lack sufficient support. “Zinke and presumably Trump believe that the President has the authority to modify monuments by presidential proclamation,” says Squillace. “If Trump moves forward as expected, this will almost certainly end up in court.”
Even without reducing the size of national monuments, there are plenty of other plausible threats. Namely: budget cuts.
“Cuts to federal funding can mean parks don’t have the resources to maintain trails, ensure places are safe and allow access,” says Hallie Fox, co-founder of Run Wild, a group that engages and informs trail runners about protecting public lands.
Other public-lands threats
In February the House and Senate both voted to reverse a rule called Planning 2.0, which gave citizens an avenue for participating in the decision-making process for how all Bureau of Land Management public lands are managed.
In March, Secretary Zinke reversed the Obama-era freeze on leases for coal extraction on public lands.
Also in March, Nevada representative Mark Amodei brought a bill to the floor which would empower the Nevada state government to sell parcels of local public land to private citizens. The bill has not been voted on.
As recently as September, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was pressured by fossil-fuel industry lobbyists to formally propose a rollback of regulations for fracking on public land (the public comment period has closed, but an official decision has not yet been announced).
What can we do?
In the face of these threats, trail runners as well as other outdoor special-interest groups are mobilizing to protect public lands.
Call your local representatives.
“Trail runners should save their senators’ phone numbers and, whenever compelled, call and leave a message … urging them to speak out against Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to shrink 10 National Monuments,” says Clare Gallagher, ultrarunner and public-lands advocate. “Trail runners can read more. We can talk about the politics of public lands and climate change.”
Take a moment to look up your local trail network online and find out who manages it. What kind of protections allow it to exist, free of roads, buildings or commercial operations? What, if any, are the threats?
Connect with other land users.
When it comes to protecting public lands, trail runners, hunters, anglers and other seemingly disparate user groups want the same thing.
“Trail runners should connect with anglers and hunters who fork over a lot of money to maintain public lands,” says Gallagher. Contact your local chapter of hunting and fishing organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers or Ducks Unlimited, and start a conversation about how trail runners and other outdoor users can work together.
Nelson agrees. “We can’t simply watch other groups do all the work. That may mean joining and participating in [advocacy] groups or at the very minimum actively working in our local communities to stand up for the public lands we love to run on.”