The Waiting is the Hardest Part: The Trump Uncertainty Principle

Do you know the old exchange?

“The future is on the horizon,” one person says, brightly.

“The horizon is an imaginary point that moves as you approach it,” a second retorts.

At the end of last month, President Trump directed the Department of Interior to review several of the national monuments designated by previous administrations under the Antiquities Act of 1906. At the signing ceremony, the president said:

“I’ve spoken with many state and local leaders—a number of them here today—who care very much about preserving our land, and who are gravely concerned about this massive federal land grab. And it’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and now we’re going to free it up, which is what should have happened in the first place. This should never have happened.

“That’s why today I am signing this order and directing Secretary Zinke to end these abuses and return control to the people—the people of Utah, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.”

You would have thought something were actually happening.

“Today, we are putting the states back in charge. It’s a big thing.”

But it isn’t. Not yet.

Right now, this is an order that just very publicly announces that someone, down the line, is going to do his job, and do it differently than the last guy.

Here’s what the Executive Order actually does: Secretary Ryan Zinke has 45 days to create a review of 20 years of National Monument designations. Which ones? Designations included are since 1996, “where the designation covers more than 100,000 acres, where the designation after expansion covers more than 100,000 acres, or where the Secretary determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.”

So, pretty much all of them.

President Obama used his executive power 34 times for monuments. President Trump’s EO scrutiny could affect up to 40 and likely around two dozen designations total, including maybe seven in California: Giant Sequoia, Carrizo Plain, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Rosa, Berryessa Snow Mountain, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow.

Square in the sights of the EO is the recent designation of Bear’s Ears in Utah, opposed by every Republican lawmaker in that state. (More than 60 percent of Utah is federal lands, and people harbor pretty deep resentment about that.)

Zinke and Interior have four months to make a final report to the President. “The final report shall include recommendations for such Presidential actions, legislative proposals, or other actions consistent with law as the Secretary may consider appropriate to carry out the policy,” the order continues.

Those recommendations are likely to vary; some of these monuments will be more complicated to undo. Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, for example, has been a flashpoint since President Clinton created it: Disputes over cattle and the extraction of coal run deep there. But Congress has subsequently modified the borders of that monument. We don’t know if the President can again change that with the stroke of his pen. Or whether the legislature he tasks with the job will necessary get it done.

Obviously litigation lies ahead: the brief Antiquities Act doesn’t even say whether a presidential order can undo a monument designation. (Congress can, but usually doesn’t.) And dozens of organizations have put their hands up to say they will sue; Trump’s threats have helped his opponents raise piles of funds. Some current monuments have economic-based arguments in favor of their configurations; others have more complex arguments to exist. No one policy emerges from this scenario.

A threat isn’t, to begin, a policy. No is not a policy, but it’s hard to argue with (ask any parent). Uncertainty is exhausting, and corrosive. And the danger is that it ceases to matter what the underlying values are.

This monuments order offers study as a response to an action. It is a future threat; it is not the action itself. President Trump demands to make an impact on environmental policy, and a functioning government is capable of action. Well beyond 100 days in, we don’t know what that looks like yet. The horizon of certainty is receding.

Photo of pictographs at Cedar Mesa Grand Gulch, part of the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management on Flickr.

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