Documents released by the Department of the Interior — and then retracted a day later — reveal that agency officials dismissed evidence that public lands provide numerous benefits in favor of prioritizing fossil fuel interests, along with ranching and logging.
Thousands of emails sent between Interior Department officials last year dismissed the benefits of establishing National Monuments, the Washington Post first reported Monday, including evidence of an uptick in tourism and archaeological discoveries.
Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the agency intentionally tailored a survey of protected sites, emphasizing instead the value of fossil fuel extraction and other industry endeavors.
The Interior Department released the documents last week in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, sending them to journalists and advocacy groups on July 16. The agency removed the communications a day later, saying they had been posted in error.
“It appears that we inadvertently posted an incorrect version of the files for the most recent National Monuments production,” officials noted. “We are requesting that if you downloaded the files already to please delete those versions.”
The briefly-released emails contain numerous redactions relating to a review of 27 national monuments requested by President Trump in April 2017. In response to Trump’s request, Zinke, who once pledged that “selling off our public lands is a non-starter”, conducted a four month review. The final result was a recommendation to shrink at least 10 monuments and modify six others.
Trump has accordingly shrunk two of those — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah — while leaving room to alter more.
Indigenous communities, environmental advocates, and numerous lawmakers condemned Zinke’s review at the time arguing that it was full of inaccuracies and that the process lacked transparency. The emails released last week appear to corroborate those accusations, in addition to showing that Zinke’s agency purposefully warped the review.
The revelations also build on previous emails obtained by the New York Times in March. These revealed that oil and gas drilling were a key incentive for the Trump administration to shrink national monuments. A uranium firm also lobbied for the downsizing of Bears Ears.
Throughout the review process, the new documents show, Interior officials buried material that would have justified the current size of the monuments under scrutiny. In one instance, the Interior Department redacted comments from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials finding it “unlikely” that the Obama administration’s designation of Bears Ears as a national monument greatly impacted timber production.
In another email, lead review staffer Randal Bowman advocated for deleting language about the minimal returns of commercial fishing near the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
“This section, while accurate… seems to me to undercut the case for the commercial fishing closure being harmful,” Bowman wrote on September 11, 2017.
Instead, officials seemingly sought out information to support industry efforts. BLM official Nikki Moore wrote on July 3, 2017 about economic reports pertaining to various monuments under review, each of which contained paragraphs pertaining to “the value of energy and/or minerals forgone as a result of the designations.”
The Interior Department redacted her comments because they might “reveal strategy about the [national monument] review process,” the Post notes.
Advocacy groups and lawmakers quickly attacked the revelations. In an email sent Monday afternoon, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune emphasized the need to protect public lands.
“Ryan Zinke’s inability to cover-up his dangerous strategy of selling out our public lands while disregarding the facts and the American people is as reckless as the plan itself,” Brune said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who serves as the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, expressed similar comments in a statement Monday. In it, she criticized the Trump administration’s “drill at all costs” approach to land protection.
“The fact that the Trump administration places no value on the booming recreation economy that generates over $887 billion annually is no surprise to those of us who have been watching their shameful record of exploiting our public lands over the last two years,” said Cantwell.
Research has shown that counties around monuments often benefit economically and culturally after federal designation. But under Zinke, the Interior Department has worked to scale them back regardless, seemingly thanks to industry lobbying.
Teaser photo credit: Horton