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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Defying the will of the people

A cactus against a backdrop of colorful clouds

A cactus against a backdrop of colorful clouds in Ironwood Forest National Monument in Marana, Ariz., in 2009. Credit: AP / Greg Bryan

Back in April, President Donald Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments designated over the last two decades for protection from development.

Conservationists and environmentalists rightly viewed that with alarm. It seemed a pretext for a foreordained conclusion. Trump, after all, has been determined to erase the legacy of President Barack Obama, whose national monument declarations to protect sweeping landscapes, geological marvels and historic artifacts were part of his substantial environmental record. Trump also wants to pump up the fortunes of the coal industry by opening up new lands to mine, whether coal companies find those areas attractive or not.

The first news dribbling out of Zinke’s review wasn’t bad — six monuments would be untouched.

Then came last week’s revelation: Zinke is proposing to reduce the size of at least four national monuments, according to multiple media outlets. The most dramatic and most contentious move would be a nearly 90 percent reduction of the magnificent Bears Ears in Utah, from 1.35 million acres to 160,000 acres. Also in Zinke’s crosshairs is Grand Staircase-Escalante, another beautiful Utah flash point.

First, some context: Presidents have shrunk monuments 18 times, none since 1963, none even remotely close to what’s pitched for Bears Ears. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson cut 313,000 acres from what later became Olympic National Park in Washington. Trump doesn’t do anything unbigly.

It’s not clear Trump or any president actually has the power to make cuts under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which created the national monument process. No president has been taken to court for past reductions, but these are different times. Litigation is certain. Cleaving Bears Ears has Supreme Court written all over it.

The process itself has been troublesome. Zinke visited only eight of the 27 sites, recommended shrinking a “handful” without identifying the sites, and did not make his report public.

His proposal defied nearly 3 million public comments, 99.2 percent of which opposed Trump’s order. Zinke snidely dismissed that as a “well-orchestrated national campaign,” as if the other side wasn’t lobbying, too. Nearly 96 percent of commenters specifically opposed the review of Bears Ears, and lest you try to write them off as a bunch of East Coast elites, 90.9 percent of Utah commenters opposed Trump’s order.

You would think those numbers would mean something to a president who loves to talk about size — of his crowds or his movement or anything else.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) called it a “rigged” process, started by a man who has talked a lot about rigged processes.

The disingenuousness runs deep.

Zinke’s summary talked about the Antiquities Act requirement that monuments encompass “the smallest area” needed to protect what is being preserved and said that past adherence to that was “either arbitrary or likely politically motivated.” The claim is utterly true of Zinke’s proposal, too.

Zinke also said his recommendations would “provide a much-needed change for the local communities” — for one segment of local communities, but not for the majority of Utah residents, for example, who say creating Grand Staircase-Escalante was a good idea and whose economy is booming from tourism-related activity.

“When you turn the management over to the tree-huggers, the bird and bunny lovers and the rock lickers, you turn your heritage over,” Utah GOP state legislator Mike Noel told The New York Times.

Last I checked, tree-huggers and bird lovers are as much a part of our heritage as coal miners. So is protecting public land.

That’s the part of our heritage we should strive most to preserve.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.