DOI Officials Dismiss Evidence on Benefits of National Monuments

Published Aug 1, 2018

The Department of the Interior (DOI) dismissed evidence showing the benefits of preserving our national monuments.  

What happened: The Department of the Interior (DOI) dismissed evidence showing the benefits of preserving our national monuments. Additionally, internal DOI documents show that public comments on a monuments review process were largely ignored.

Why it matters: When evidence that supports the designation of a national monument are outright ignored and dismissed during internal deliberations, scientific integrity is lost in the process and can result in less protection for areas of cultural and environmental importance. The 1906 Antiquities Act obligates the federal agencies that manage the public lands, like the DOI, to preserve the historic, scientific, commemorative, and cultural values of the archaeological and historic sites.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have revealed that senior officials at the Department of the Interior (DOI) downplayed, ignored or dismissed evidence of increased tourism and archeological discoveries at national monuments. This peek into internal deliberations at the DOI suggest that officials already had their minds made up with one senior official writing, “barring a surprise, there is no new information that’s going to be submitted” through the public comment process on the monuments review. The emails also show that evidence submitted to support national monuments was not valued: “This section [of information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Fishery Management Council], while accurate (except for one sentence) seems to me to undercut the case for commercial fishing closure being harmful. I suggested in the attached deleting most of it for that reason.”

This dismissal of evidence that speaks in favor of preserving national monuments is happening across the country, for example, the President’s decision to shrink the extent of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. President Trump, with input from the DOI, previously reduced the size of the two Utah monuments by 1.1 million and 800,000 acres respectively, the largest reduction of public-lands protection in U.S. history. A review by the New York Times of FOIA-obtained email correspondence from DOI officials revealed that the decision to dramatically shrink Grand Staircase-Escalante was based on politics, not scientific evidence.

What was lacking from the email correspondence obtained by the New York Times was a discussion on the archeological history of the region. Bears Ears is one of the best fossil depositories in the U.S. of the middle to late Triassic and early Jurassic, the age of dinosaurs. Additionally, only 10% of the estimated 100,000 Native American cultural sites in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante have been formally surveyed. Some of these important Native American sites are up to 13,000 years old, leading to concerns of looting and vandalism because these lands no longer have federal protections. By dismissing this archaeological evidence, the legacy of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is threatened.

The National Park Service has argued that the 1906 Antiquities Act, which governs the establishment of national monuments, is the cornerstone of preservation in the federal system, and that, aside from an act of Congress, national monuments represent one of the best ways to protect areas with cultural, historical, or scientific significance. Scientists are beginning to stand up for the use of evidence in decision-making processes and have come out in large numbers against the proposed shrinking of the national monuments. For instance, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), a scientific organization that comprises more than 2,300 members from universities and scientific institutions around the world, is suing the federal government over the issue. The paleontological organization argues that the establishment of national monuments protects against fossil looting, prioritizes scientific activities, and preserves a part of the country’s – indeed the planet’s – story of the past. And the voices of scientists do make a difference – as a result of a strong pushback from tribal, environmental and Congressional leaders, DOI Secretary Zinke unexpectedly halted an oil and gas land lease of approximately 4500 acres in New Mexico because of a failure to complete scientific analyses on over 5000 Native American cultural sites in the area.

The DOI is an institution that prides itself on creating policy that is “robust, of the highest quality, and the result of as rigorous scientific and scholarly processes as can be achieved.” DOI officials were asked to review several national monuments by the Trump Administration and, by using public comments and the best available evidence, make decisions on how that land would provide the most benefit to the public. Internal deliberations appear to indicate the DOI officials did not include either public comments or evidence in their decision making. When evidence is sidelined from decision making processes, this often results in policies that are ineffective at protecting the public’s best interests. With evidence sidelined on DOI’s monument review process, the preservation of national monuments as sources of important paleontological finds, rich sites created by ancient Native Americans, and boosts in the local economy will likely suffer as a result of this loss of scientific integrity in the decision-making process.