By Tim Pearce
Ten environmental groups joined in a lawsuit against top administration officials Monday after President Donald Trump cut land at Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half.
The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, alleges that Trump’s order to reduce the monument’s designation is unlawful. The president does not have the express authority through the Antiquities Act, which allows a president to designate national monuments, to shrink one.
Development now allowed on the Grand Staircase-Escalante area “will scar the lands, compromise vital parts of the paleontological record, ruin their wild, natural character, and destroy the resources the Monument was created to protect,” the lawsuit says.
Grand Staircase-Escalante has produced dinosaur fossils of 21 new species, leading some to refer to it as a “Dinosaur Shangri-la” and “geologic wonderland.”
“President Trump has perpetrated a terrible violation of America’s public lands and heritage by going after this dinosaur treasure trove,” Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh said in a statement.
Chapman University associate dean and law professor Donald Kochan says the president’s power to shrink national monuments is implied within the Antiquities Act, and the debate surrounding the limit of the president’s authority from the act focuses more on differing policy views than legality.
“It is critical to distinguish between whether altering monument borders and status is wise policy versus whether the President has legal authority to do so,” Kochan, an environmental expert with the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project, said in a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Nothing in the poorly drafted and extremely deferential text of the Antiquities Act overcomes the presumption that the power to act includes the power to reverse course, even of a prior president,” he added.
The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to place national monument status on federal land “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
The act, less than 500 words in length, is broadly interpreted, however, and has been used to create monuments millions of acres in size, that Trump has called an “egregious abuse of federal power.”
“Blanket, broad-based protective status for large uninterrupted chunks of property is not always the wisest way to balance competing policy objectives,” Kochan said. “The other land management statutes, combined with state, local, and tribal consultation, better accomplish prudent public lands policy.”
The argument should be focus on useful reforms to the Antiquities Act, not hashing out the legality of actions under a vague law, according to Kochan.
“Given our human nature to exercise whatever authority we are given, those worried about the excess of presidential power to proclaim national monuments as well as those worried about an excess of power to undo past designations should direct less attention at changing the decisions of the individual and more at changing the law that permits, indeed invites, both designations as well as shifts away from them with a change in Administration,” Kochan said.