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Since 1996, U.S. presidents have deployed the 1906 Antiquities Act to create 27 national monuments, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bear Ears, both in Utah, and the 1.6 million-acre Mojave Trails National Monument in California, created in early 2016. President Donald Trump calls this a “massive federal land grab” that unilaterally puts “millions of acres of land and water under federal control.” In similar style, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says “the Act has become a tool of political advocacy rather than public interest.” The unilaterally declared monuments, Zinke argues, limits the land’s use for farming, timber harvesting and mining, along with oil and gas exploration.
Back in April, President Trump signed an executive order that “reviews enforcement of the law that gives him power to designate lands as national monuments.” The president tasked Zinke to produce a final report within 120 days. As the August 24 deadline looms, it remains uncertain which monuments the president will reduce or eliminate. Many in California, Utah and Nevada, would agree that the monuments, as Trump also said, are “another egregious abuse of federal power.” The decision will test Trump’s claim that he wants to “give that power back to the states and to the people where it belongs.” Meanwhile, in the Golden State, governor Jerry Brown has empowered a different kind of land grab that poses a stronger threat to property rights.
Last year Brown signed AB 2492, a militant surge in the abuse of eminent domain, which gives government power to take private property for public use—roads, parks, bridges, schools and so forth—in return for “just compensation.” The California legislation, in the style of the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo v. City of New London ruling, allows governments to grab property and hand it over to private developers. The legislation does this by making it easier to target certain areas as “blighted.” As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her dissent to the Kelo decision, “the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”