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In Wake of Leaked Memo, House Lawmaker Said Mulling Monuments Legislation

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, reportedly plans to introduce legislation to redesignate two national monuments in his state -- including one in an area that has seen some oil and gas drilling -- and hinted that an additional statute to modify the Antiquities Act of 1906 could be forthcoming.

The move comes more than one week after a 19-page memo from Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke to President Trump was leaked to the media. The memo listed recommended changes at 10 national monuments, including trimming the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, but it did not specify any area reductions.

On Wednesday, E&E News reported that Bishop, a critic of both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase designations, plans to introduce two bills addressing public lands issues in Utah. At least one of the bills reportedly includes language to redesignate the two national monuments.

Bishop also said in an interview that he would "probably" introduce legislation at some point to amend the Antiquities Act. The Trump administration says previous administrations abused the Act, and sometimes made monument designations against the will of the local public.

“We are encouraged by Secretary Zinke’s recommendations and will be working on a broader package to prevent future abuses of the [Antiquities] Act,” Deputy Press Secretary Katie Schoettler of the House Committee on Natural Resources, told NGI’s Shale Daily on Wednesday.

Last April, Trump signed an executive order ordering DOI to review any national monument designation of more than 100,000 acres made since Jan. 1, 1996. The original review affected 27 national monuments, but six were later removed. Of the remaining 21, 16 were in the onshore, and all but Maine's Katahdin Woods and Waters are in the West. The remaining five are marine monuments in the offshore.

From the start, Bears Ears in San Juan County, UT, appeared to be the most controversial designation. President Obama set aside 1.35 million acres for the monument last December, shortly before leaving office. The area has seen mostly conventional but also some unconventional oil and gas drilling. San Juan County also overlays the Paradox Basin, which includes the Cane Creek and Hovenweep shales.

In an interim report filed in June, Zinke recommended that Bears Ears be trimmed in size but did not specify by how much. Two months later, Zinke submitted a draft report to Trump that reportedly recommended the president reduce the size of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles southwest Oregon and northwest California.

A leaked copy of a memo purportedly from Zinke to Trump and dated Aug. 24, the same date as the draft report, appears to have been uploaded to DocumentCloud, a nonprofit journalism website, by the Washington Post. Media reports said the memo was leaked on Sept. 17.

The memo indicated that Zinke recommended reducing the size of the three national monuments, plus the Gold Butte National Monument, which is in Clark County, NV.

"It is recommended that you exercise your discretion to modify certain existing proclamations and boundaries," Zinke’s memo said to Trump. "In doing so, each proclamation would continue to identify particular objects or sites of historic or scientific interest and recite grounds for the designations thereby comporting with the [Antiquities] Act's policies and requirements. However, this can be done in a manner that prioritizes public access, infrastructure, traditional use, tribal cultural use, and hunting and fishing rights."

On Bears Ears, Zinke said "the boundary should be revised through the use of appropriate authority, including lawful exercise of the president's discretion granted by the Act, to continue to protect objects and ensure the size is conducive to effective protection of the objects." Similar language was used in the recommendations for Cascade-Siskiyou, Gold Butte and Grand Staircase.

The leaked memo irritated both supporters and opponents of the monument designations.

"If President Trump accepts Zinke's advice and moves to eviscerate monument protections, he'd be ignoring the law -- and the will of the American people," Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh said last week. "We will stand up for the nearly three million people who urged the administration to protect these monuments -- in court, if necessary. We will not allow these special lands and waters to be handed over to private interests for drilling, commercial fishing, logging and other extraction."

Meanwhile, Bishop told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that Trump "should have the time to evaluate the secretary's review and develop actions without the encumbrance of incomplete information being leaked to the press. "Had past administrations not blatantly abused [the Antiquities Act], this evaluation process would not have been necessary in the first place. Now that the designation process is being scrutinized, it's even more clear that abuses occurred and real problems were left unresolved or ignored."

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