In a quest to shrink national monuments last year, senior Interior Department officials dismissed evidence these public lands boosted tourism and spurred archaeological discoveries, according to documents the department released this month and retracted a day later.
The thousands of pages of email correspondence chart how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides instead tailored their survey of protected sites to emphasize the value of logging, ranching and energy development that would be unlocked if they were not designated as national monuments.
Comments the department’s Freedom of Information Act officers made in the documents show they sought to keep some of the references out of public view because they were “revealing [the] strategy” behind the review.
Presidents can establish national monuments in federal land or waters if they determine cultural, historical or natural resources are imperiled. In April, President Trump signed an executive order instructing Zinke to review 27 national monuments established over a period of 21 years, arguing his predecessors had overstepped their authority in placing these large sites off-limits to development.
Trump has already massively reduced two of Utah’s largest national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, and has not ruled out altering others.
The new documents show that as Zinke conducted his four-month review, Interior officials rejected material that would justify keeping protections in place and sought out evidence that could buttress the case for unraveling them.
On July 3, 2017, Bureau of Land Management official Nikki Moore wrote colleagues about five draft economic reports on sites under scrutiny, noting there is a paragraph within each on “our ability to estimate the value of energy and/or minerals forgone as a result of the designations.” That reference was redacted on the grounds it could “reveal strategy about the [national monument] review process.”
Officials also singled out BLM acting deputy director John Ruhs’s July 28 response to questions from Katherine MacGregor, acting assistant secretary of lands and minerals management, as eligible to be redacted. MacGregor had asked about the logging potential of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument if Trump reversed the expansion former president Barack Obama carried out at the end of his second term.
“Previous timber sale planning and development in the [expansion area] can be immediately resumed,” Ruhs wrote.
Zinke proposed removing some of the forested areas within Cascade-Siskiyou, where three mountain ranges and several distinct ecosystems intersect, to “allow sustained-yield timber production.” Trump has yet to alter the site, which was established by former president Bill Clinton as a 65,000-acre monument and then enlarged by nearly 48,000 acres days before Obama left office.
These redactions came to light because Interior’s FOIA office sent out a batch of documents to journalists and advocacy groups on July 16 it later removed online.
“It appears that we inadvertently posted an incorrect version of the files for the most recent National Monuments production,” officials wrote July 17. “We are requesting that if you downloaded the files already to please delete those versions.”
Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, said in an email the “botched document dump reveals what we’ve suspected all along: Secretary Zinke ignored clear warnings from his own staff that shrinking national monuments would put sacred archaeological and cultural sites at risk.”