Monumental study

Fate of two Nevada sites at issue

Nevada’s Gold Butte has been a national monument for fewer than 130 days, and Donald Trump is considering overturning its status.

Nevada’s Gold Butte has been a national monument for fewer than 130 days, and Donald Trump is considering overturning its status.


Go to the National Park Service’s list of national monuments at and search for Nevada’s Basin and Range National Monument. It’s there, but if you click on it, it takes you to a page that reads “Page Not Found.”

That is slightly more successful than looking for Nevada’s Gold Butte National Monument. It is not listed at all.

Those signs of indifference from the NPS play right into the hands of Donald Trump, who argues that national monuments are illegitimate.

On the other hand, going to the White House website after Trump issued an executive order on national monuments and searching for that order produced only one item—“Get Out and Enjoy National Park Week,” a page that urges citizens to visit national parks and monuments.

“Today, we are putting the states back in charge. It’s a big thing,” Trump said in signing his order.

Back in charge?

He added that his order would “end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.”

Return control?

In fact, the states have never controlled public lands, so they can hardly be “returned.” The original 13 colonies, when they went from being independent states to part of a nation, turned their land holdings over to the federal government.

Thereafter, as the nation moved west, the federal government allocated 30 states some public lands to help them pay for their school costs. Those states still hold those lands, if they have managed them well. Nevada received 3,992,000 acres in school trust lands and has fewer than 3,000 remaining.

But these were grants, not returns of land. The land involved had always previously been federal holdings, in Nevada’s case since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, when the United States more or less took Nevada and other territory from Mexico at gunpoint.

In 1929, President Hoover offered to turn public lands over to the states, only to have the states accuse him of trying to saddle them with the enormous costs that would come with the transfer. Trump is having similar luck. The Albuquerque Journal responded to Trump’s order by calling it a “land grab.”

“Although the act doesn’t give the president power to undo a designation, and no president has ever taken such a step, Trump isn’t like any president we’ve seen,” the newspaper editorialized. “And that begs the question of what Trump will do when he gets the results of his review? … [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke’s review of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument could gum up the works of a deal designed to provide access to the currently land-locked, 16,030-acre Sabinoso Wilderness, a dramatic piece of the high plains east of Las Vegas[, New Mexico].”

Salt Lake Tribune: “There is no argument to be made that monuments haven’t preserved land. ’Free it up?’ What does that even mean? Free to overgraze and drive wherever we want? We’ve been there, and no one wants that.”

Tacoma [Washington] News Tribune: “There’s no doubt federal management of public lands has at times frustrated citizens, businesses and communities, and that regulations have hindered some access to recreation and development. But there’s also no public will to give up on Teddy Roosevelt’s century-old vision of federal land preservation.”

In a January opinion survey of Western states by the State of the Rockies Project, a sample of Nevadans that matched voter registration almost exactly with Nevada’s was asked this question: “And, do you think that existing national monument designations for some public lands protected over the last decade should be kept in place or should they be removed?” Eighty-one percent said monuments should be kept in place.

Trump switch

Like most of Trump’s executive orders that he has portrayed as representing action, this one does little except order a study of the topic. However, his harsh verbiage toward national monuments (“massive federal land grab”) suggests the study is pro forma. And the website at the Interior Department, which will conduct the study, similarly suggests the department already knows where it is going: “The designations of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 and the Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 are considered the book-ends of modern Antiquities Act overreach.”

Outdoor apparel company Patagonia quickly stepped into a leadership role in stopping Trump from taking any unfriendly actions toward monuments. A corporate statement said Patagonia, which has a Reno presence, is “preparing to take every step necessary, including legal action.”

As with so many matters, the national monuments issue represents a sharp reversal of position for Trump from his campaign stance as his Republican Party has enforced its doctrine on its volatile leader. During his campaign, Trump’s posture on public lands was described this way by the New Republic:

“Donald Trump’s argument for conservation of public lands is pretty liberal. Amid calls from Ted Cruz and the Bundys of his party to turn over federally owned lands to states to do what they wish, Trump has taken a controversial stand: He wants to protect public lands. ’I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,’ Trump told Field & Stream. … ’I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.’ His most surprising statement, though, is his argument that the domestic boom in oil and gas drilling should be an extra incentive to slow down: ’Right now… it’s more of an advantage in terms of your question because we don’t have to do the kind of drilling that we did. I am for energy exploration, as long as we don’t do anything to damage the land. And right now we don’t need too much—there’s a lot of energy.’ This doesn’t just put Trump squarely to the left of his current opponents, but to Mitt Romney, who in 2012 wasn’t sure ’what the purpose is’ of public lands and wanted to allow states to determine drilling rights. Trump on the other hand thinks we ’have to be great stewards.’”

Also in that Field & Stream interview, conducted in Las Vegas, Trump suggested he did not trust the states to keep public lands public: “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?”

Now, however, he leads the GOP, which supports opening vast swaths of land for mining, commercial development, timber harvesting and pipelines.

Which national monuments Trump might be eyeing for change is uncertain. Twenty-four monuments in nine states and the Pacific Ocean are covered by his order calling for review of national monument designations in the past 21 years. That takes in the administrations of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and part of Bill Clinton’s tenure.

Nevada’s Basin and Range National Monument was established by President Obama on July 10, 2015. Obama designated Gold Butte a national monument on Dec. 28.