Under the hot July sun and with the Gold Butte National Monument visible in the background, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters Sunday afternoon that “public land is not for sale.”
“I’m an advocate for monuments,” Zinke said. “Every monument is unique. A lot of times people feel like the public land is going to be sold. They think a monument is the tool to make sure public land stays in public hands. I’m an advocate to never sell or transfer public land and so is the president.”
After taking a short hike in Gold Butte National Monument Sunday morning with a handful of local officials, Zinke flew by helicopter over the Basin and Range National Monument in Lincoln County. Upon returning to Mesquite Airport, he visited a private home in Bunkerville where he met with two local residents and the Virgin Valley Water District General Manager Kevin Brown. He held the news conference outside the home.
He explained that the Antiquities Act under which President Obama designated the monuments, requires that the smallest area compatible with protecting the cultural, historic or unique objects within be included. He also said that only federal land can be included, not state or private property.
President Trump tasked Zinke with reviewing all monument declarations made since 1996 that are 100,000 acres or greater. Of the 200 monuments in the country, 27 fall under the review mandate. “There are a handful of monuments that we’re looking at that the proclamation for traditional use like hunting, fishing, or access may be an issue,” he said. If there is still controversy about the monument, Zinke said he looks for “the sticking points. I’m an advocate for public access and traditional uses. Ranching is as much a part of the culture of a monument as some of the objects.”
He refused to discuss legal issues associated with Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, who is awaiting trial for illegally grazing cattle within the Gold Butte Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
Zinke said lack of proper infrastructure and poor road maintenance that he saw in both monuments interrupts public access. “When you make a monument, you’re going to have more people. If we’re going to protect the objects that the monument is intended to do, then you have to have things like bathrooms and monitoring systems in place.”
He’s also concerned that the monument designation overlays some areas that have already been designated under other laws or regulations. Currently, there are several areas within Gold Butte that have been designated as wilderness or wilderness study areas and require more stringent management rules and laws than does a monument.
“Do you manage it as a monument or as a wilderness? That’s something I’ve asked Congress to clarify,” Zinke said. “I think it’s inappropriate to stack different classes of land on the same ground because you have multiple bureaucracies that makes management difficult and confusing.”
He said he hasn’t met anybody on either side that doesn’t love the land or disagrees that it’s worth protecting. “There’s more in common on the monuments than there are opposites,” Zinke said.
Zinke said his main concerns during the reviews are maintaining traditional uses, public access, infrastructure upgrades and flood control.
He addressed continuing access to water district rights in both Basin and Range and Gold Butte monuments. While water rights owned by Lincoln County Water District in the Basin and Range monument are still in effect, the sources are not accessible for use based on the land management around them.
The Virgin Valley Water District has rights to more than 2,200 acre feet per year of water in Gold Butte and is working to maintain the rights-of-way to the water sources. However, murky language in the monument proclamation could impede access based on how the resource management plan is written in future years. Moving the monument boundary about five miles would remove the water sources from within the designation.
“I talked to the water district manager and that’s a concern we’re looking at; to make sure the boundaries would allow infrastructure updating and flood control. We’re making sure the proclamation doesn’t impede using the land in a way that’s reasonable and with common sense.”
Originally scheduled for two days, Zinke’s trip was cut short. He said any group he wasn’t able to meet with will be contacted for telephone discussions including the Moapa Paiute Indian tribe.
Addressing the threat of lawsuits if the monuments are adjusted or rescinded, Zinke said, “On my first day in office I got sued six times. I’m going to do the right thing regardless of the threat of a lawsuit. Monuments have been adjusted 18 times before. There’s not too much question about whether a monument can be adjusted. Whether one can be rescinded is a question for the courts.”
Zinke is scheduled to wrap up his review of all the monuments and report back to Trump by the end of August.