The Interior Department’s First Memo For Donald Trump Is A Real Howler

The Trump administration's Interior Department is putting on a master class in term-paper padding.

US President Donald Trump pauses during a press conference with Romania's President Klaus Iohannis in the Rose Garden of the White House June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump pauses during a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House June 9, 2017 in Washington. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In April, with an eye toward selling off public land, President Trump issued an executive order calling for a review of federal land set aside using the Antiquities Act of 1906.

An interim report by the Interior Department was due June 10, focused mainly on the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35 million acre site in Utah encompassing Native American land. The report was to produce recommendations on whether to alter the status of Bears Ears, “and other such designations as the Secretary determines to be appropriate for inclusion in the interim report.”

It’s bad.

Junior-high-school-book-report-where-you-move-in-the-margins-to-get-to-the-required-page-length bad.

Before yesterday, none of the presidential-level reports mandated by Donald Trump’s executive orders had been made public. But Monday saw both the Interior report and one from the Treasury Department, a partial review of financial regulations, which appeared to at least be a genuine effort.

On deadline day, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivered to the president a five-page memo, one and a half pages of which consist of long quotes from the executive order. The summary of the report is longer than the “results of the interim review” section on page 5, and the recommendations (to reduce the existing boundary of Bears Ears, convert part of the site to a recreation or conservation area, and more clearly define management responsibilities) are duplicated.

Sources: Federal Register, The White House, and The Intercept reporting

Though other designations could have been discussed, Zinke stuck with just Bears Ears, skating by with the bare minimum required. In two places, Zinke asserts that the memo satisfies the conditions of the interim report, as if trying to convince himself.

It’s not like Zinke didn’t have the raw materials for a full report; he visited the site and solicited public comment on Bears Ears, receiving 76,500 comments. But what appears in the memo, aside from the quotes from the executive order, is a long background of the Antiquities Act, various concerns raised over its use, a Wikipedia-style survey of Bears Ears and the surrounding area, and exactly one page featuring the results of the interim review and recommendations.

Most of those results hinge on one line in the Antiquities Act, that the area reserved “be limited to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management” of the objects. In other words, it was hardly necessary to leave Washington to write this memo. While acknowledging some parts of Bears Ears include Native American artifacts, traditional gathering places, archeological sites, and rock art, Zinke says those areas should be identified and separated, with other sites given other designations or offered for activities like timber harvest or mining.

Obama’s proclamation establishing Bears Ears is several times the size of this report recommending its curtailing.

It’s not clear which exactly is the greater insult to the public — that the administration is clearly determined to sell off even culturally and archaeologically sensitive sites for commercial use whenever possible, or that the administration can’t be bothered to do more than pretend to take concerns with doing so seriously.

It may be, however, that the report is tailored for Donald Trump, a man who famously has a reading appetite of one page or less. But that’s unlikely, because the report does not mention Trump’s name once, which his advisers have said is necessary to keep him engaged. And it includes no pictures or charts.

The final report under this executive order is due August 24, encompassing all designations over 100,000 acres over the past 20 years. Zinke requested that the full review be completed before more specific recommendations be made for Bears Ears.

Eleven of the 13 reports issued to Trump under executive orders remain a secret. You can follow The Intercept’s interactive tracker of Trump’s executive order actions here.

Update: June 14, 2017

I initially cited the Interior Department’s claim that they received 76,500 comments about the Bears Ears National Monument. According to the main coalition opposing changes to the monument, that number was over 680,000. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Media Director Matthew Gross points out that the Interior Department “counted multiple comments uploaded en masse as a single comment.” His organization submitted over 4,000 individual comments but they were counted as just one, a trend also seen by other groups.

Top photo: U.S. President Donald Trump pauses during a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 9, 2017, in Washington.

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