Okay, so it’s public . . . Now what?

By Brent A. Rudolph, Ph.D., RGS & AWS Director of Conservation Policy

RGS and AWS are among the most passionate organizations defending the overall benefits of public lands, but we are one of the few voices working to raise awareness and prompt action regarding the poor conservation performance on federal properties with respect to providing young forest habitat.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine

Approximately 1,459,940 comments were received in response to the “Review of Certain National Monuments Established Since 1996” (regulations.gov). You may know this better as “The Bears Ears Brouhaha,” though there’s a chance that only I call it that.

The referenced review is being conducted by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in response to an Executive Order issued by President Donald Trump in April. The review will assess designations of 27 national monuments established since 1996. Other than Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (Katahdin Woods) in Maine (see picture above), all monuments to be reviewed are located in western states or are marine national monuments.

The review of the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah stimulated much of the passionate public response on this topic. Monuments may be designated under authorities granted to the President of the United States since passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906. As is usually the case with national monuments, the lands incorporated into Bears Ears were already in federal ownership, managed under the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service. The proclamation that established Bears Ears referenced the primary resource management motivation that prompted passage of the Antiquities Act in the first place – a need to provide additional protections for lands or features of cultural or historical significance. As is also commonly the case, at least for recently established monuments, Bears Ears was designated by President Barack Obama during his waning days in office on December 28, 2016.

The United States Constitution states that “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States,” but the Antiquities Act delegated to the president some of this power by giving them authority to designate national monuments. For years there was recognition that artifacts from cultural sites of several local Native American tribes near Bears Ears were being stolen. Tribal activists worked with the Utah congressional delegation on proposals for added protections for these lands, but action never made it through Congress. The infinitely easier process through which a president can designate a monument overcame the stalled deliberations, and represents the primary practical motivation Congress gave this authority to the president, in recognition that some cases would require a quick, sure response to act in time to protect irreplaceable resources under imminent threat. But that doesn’t mean that Congress – and certain groups of their constituents, along with state and local government officials, industry representatives, and presidential successors – can’t still get angry about it when presidents exercise these powers that they’ve been given.

Some of the furor over Bears Ears revolves around the role the Native American tribes should play in the future of these lands (with different ideas ranging from advising to co-managing to being entirely excluded), as well as more broadly around the troubled history of United States relations with Native American nations. I don’t label this conflict a brouhaha to downplay the gravity of these issues. Other concerns relate to the controversy regarding the values of conservation on public lands compared to development through private ownership, and I don’t wish to diminish the importance of having a reasoned public dialogue regarding that topic. Amidst this wave of passion that has hopefully elevated public attention on considering the value of our public lands, an opportunity is being swept away to acknowledge their importance to conservation, their benefits for sustaining our national sporting heritage, yet the need to do more to ensure their full potential is truly realized.

A quick 2,700 mile drive to the northeast, Katahdin Woods stands as a true monument to this need to do more. In most cases, monument boundaries are designated around lands that have long been controlled by the federal government. However, the Antiquities Act also states that designations may essentially be applied to lands at the time they are “relinquished to the Federal Government.” The private donors of these lands in Maine were initially interested in establishing a National Park. Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) and American Woodcock Society (AWS) staff met with and advised local land managers and consultants that worked on the transition of these lands through what was ultimately the monument designation. We conveyed the need for, potential approaches to, and benefits of even-age forest management to sustain abundant game and non-game wildlife, provide high quality hunting, and contribute to the local timber and outdoor recreation economies. When these lands were gifted and shortly thereafter designated by President Barack Obama on August 24, 2016, the proclamation did commit to maintaining public hunting access on more than half of the approximately 87,500 total acres within the monument. Among the 1,459,940 comments submitted on the overall national monument review, RGS/AWS input conveyed our thanks and support for this commitment to sustain hunting access to these portions of Katahdin Woods, but noted “protecting hunting access to these areas and to public lands in general will prove a hollow gesture without ensuring they provide high quality habitat.” The serious oversight was in making no provision to engage in forest management at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Even where federal lands are clearly open for and even encouraged to engage in active forest treatments, far too many obstacles are preventing appropriate, scientifically sound habitat management from occurring. While 53 percent of the bird species that breed in shrub-dominated or young forest habitats have declined within the eastern United States and Canada since 1980, the public dialogue is all too often getting bogged down in arguments over whether land should remain public or not. Amidst all of these arguments, shouting over the case of national monuments is particularly distracting. These lands already were in or destined for federal ownership. Modifying boundaries or conditions of designations, or even eliminating designations entirely (which at least some legal experts contend is not within the president’s scope of authority) would not change their ownership status. RGS and AWS are among the most passionate organizations defending the overall benefits of public lands, but we are one of the few voices working to raise awareness and prompt action regarding the poor conservation performance on federal properties with respect to providing young forest habitat.

Secretary Zinke could work with the Administration through this review to modify the designation, or else provide explicit direction that the management plan that will be required for Katahdin Woods will include objectives to apply even-age forest management to sustain habitat. Our comments also conveyed interest in being considered a potential source of support for habitat management in collaboration with local managers and neighboring property owners, or of assistance to the Secretary and the Department to communicate to the public the important responsibility our resource managers have to provide active stewardship of these public trust resources. As our members and supporters, I hope you’ll add your voices to ours in calling for reasoned dialogue and real action to address this conservation shortfall.

Contact: Brent A. Rudolph, Ph.D., RGS/AWS Director of Conservation Policy, (517) 980-4570, BrentR@RuffedGrouseSociety.Org

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