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U.S. agency to recommend scaling back some national monuments

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Thursday he has sent recommendations from his review of more than two dozen national monuments to President Donald Trump, indicating that some could be scaled back to allow for more hunting and fishing and economic development.

The recommendations follow a 120-day study of 27 national monuments across the country, created by presidents since 1996, that Trump ordered in April as part of his broader effort to increase development on federal lands.

The review has cheered energy, mining, ranching and timber advocates but has drawn widespread criticism and threats of lawsuits from conservation groups and the outdoor recreation industry.

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There were fears that Zinke would recommend the outright elimination of some of the monuments on the list, but on Thursday, speaking to the Associated Press in Billings, Montana, he said he will not recommend eliminating any.

Zinke said in a statement that the recommendations would “provide a much needed change for the local communities who border and rely on these lands for hunting and fishing, economic development, traditional uses, and recreation.” He did not specify which monuments he plans to recommend be scaled back.

The Associated Press reported that Zinke said he would recommend changing the boundaries for a “handful” of sites.

Zinke has already announced a recommendation to shrink the size of one site under review, the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah created by former President Barack Obama late last year. In the last few weeks, Zinke has said that six monuments, including the Upper Missouri River Breaks in his home state of Montana, would be left intact.

“The report is a draft, so we are continuing to work with Interior on getting the best information on which to base recommendations” for Trump, a White House official said. “Once we have a final report, in the coming weeks, we will make it public.”

Timing for the public release of the recommendations has not been set.

Trump has argued that previous administrations abused their right to create monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906 by putting huge areas, mainly in Western states, off limits to drilling, mining, logging, ranching and other activities without adequate input from locals.

The law enables a president to declare certain areas of historic or scientific interest a national monument if “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

A designation as a national monument is permanent, and prohibits mining and sets stringent protections for ecosystems on the site. The designation offers more permanent protection than other federal designations like national wilderness or conservation areas.

No president has ever revoked a previous designation but a few have reduced the size of some monuments.

Conservation groups and the growing outdoor retail industry launched public campaigns over the last few weeks to urge Zinke to leave the monuments intact, and they vowed to challenge him in court.

“Any recommendation from Secretary Zinke to shrink national monuments is hypocritical at best and ruinous at worst,” said Michael Brune, director of the Sierra Club.

One Republican congressman from Utah, Rob Bishop, chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, said he had not yet seen the full report but was briefed on some aspects of it by Zinke. He said his committee would eventually take up legislation to carry out some of Zinke’s recommendations and may attempt to reform the Antiquities Act.

“If we don’t do reform of the Antiquities Act, we will have failures in the future,” he said.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler)

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