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A Trust Approach to National Monuments

How a trust approach to managing national monuments could protect public lands.

Grand Staircase-Escalente National Monument. Photo courtesy of the BLM

Yesterday, President Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to review about two dozen national monuments created by the Antiquities Act since 1996. Each monument under consideration encompasses more than 100,000 acres, and while the order does not directly strip the monument designation from any of them, Secretary Ryan Zinke will make recommendations on whether to rescind or resize each one based on the findings of the review.

This news comes at a time when Americans are incredibly divided over federal management on public lands. One side argues that allowing a President to unilaterally designate national monuments with the Antiquities Act—without local or congressional consent—has left affected communities without a voice in the process. The order “does what the past administration should have done,” said House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “Talk to real people who live in the [affected] communities and not just special out-of-state interest groups.”

On the other side, other groups are outraged, arguing that national monuments provide cultural, ecological, economic, and recreational value. As Patagonia CEO and President Rose Marcario said, “We take this as a sign that Trump and his team prefer to cater to fossil fuel interests and state land grabs for unsustainable development, rather than preserve a vital part of our nation’s heritage for future generations by protecting federal lands owned by every citizen.”

One of the monuments being reviewed is the Grand Staircase-Escalante in southern Utah. When the national monument was designated by President Clinton in 1996, opinions on the designation were just as polarized as they are today. Writing in 1999, PERC scholars Terry Anderson and Holly Fretwell concluded that the monument was likely to remain controversial unless the management structure could be taken out of politics. In their Policy Series, A Trust for Grand Staircase-Escalante, they examined an alternative approach for the national monument—managing it as a trust:

A trust for the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument could change these incentives, reducing the impact of politics and obtaining more funds for preservation. At its simplest, a trust is a legal assignment of certain powers to one or more persons, called trustees, who manage assets for the benefit of another. The trustees have a fiduciary or legal obligation to manage the assets within the constraints of the trust agreement.

To make sure that the trustee acts in the interest of the principal and carries out the mission of the trust, the mission must be stated clearly and performance must be measured against this mission. Economists Michael Jensen and William Meckling (1976) recommended three ways in which the trustee can be made more accountable. These include:

• specifying ways of measuring and monitoring the trustees’ performance;
• compensating the trustees for acting in ways that correlate with the beneficiary’s welfare; and
• enforcing specific behavioral rules or policies.

We propose a trust that would manage Grand Staircase-Escalante for the benefit of the general public. The goal of the trust would be the one already established for the monument: “to protect a spectacular array of scientific, historic, biological, geological, paleontological, and archaeological objects” (BLM 1998, 1.1). The trust we propose would be required to cover all costs either from revenues generated from the assets in the monument or from private contributions of funds, property, or services by individuals, corporations, or charitable foundations.

The trust would have a board appointed by the president of the United States, with staggered terms to overlap presidential elections, thus eliminating the possibility that a president would immediately appoint a new set of trustees. To ensure that the board of trustees would carefully balance multiple uses in the monument and consider the fiscal implications of its decisions, trustees would be nominated from interest groups. The interests represented would include environmental, recreational, wildlife, Indian, ranching, mining, oil and gas, and state and local government.

Carefully structuring the mission and board of the trust would keep the trust committed to its objective and its beneficiaries. The trust would specifically define the monument’s environmental, recreational, and archaeological assets and establish criteria for judging management and measuring trustee performance.

Moreover, Anderson and Fretwell pointed to the Presido as an example of where the federal trust approach was already in action. A former military post and national historic landmark, the Presidio was transferred to the National Park Service in 1994 and became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area:

The Presidio contains 1,480 acres and 510 historic buildings with over 7 million square feet of space. While small in size for a national park, its location in a strikingly beautiful setting in a major city makes it prime real estate and a subject of great interest. An annual budget estimated to be as much as $38 million a year would have made the Presidio the most costly park in the federal system. An additional $274 million is required for capital investments (Governor’s Office of Planning and Research 1998). Under fiscal constraints, Congress was forced to examine alternative funding methods to retain control of the Presidio. Creativity and congressional debate produced the Presidio Trust. Its goals are to preserve and enhance the Presidio as a national park and achieve financial self-sufficiency by fiscal year 2013 (Presidio Trust 1998, 3).

A general management plan was developed for the Presidio based on the principle of environmental sustainability, a term defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future. The plan blends the use of natural, cultural, and recreational resources with the development of centers for education and research. The Presidio is to serve as a place to study and improve the natural environment and humans’ interaction with it.

The trust is responsible for managing the assets of the Presidio in a way that will minimize costs to the U.S. Treasury and make efficient use of the land and buildings. Trust goals include finding tenants and establishing programs to preserve the natural, historic, and cultural resources, while providing educational and recreational opportunities. The Presidio can be a community that promotes the ecological integrity of the site, socioeconomic diversity, and economic viability. The trust board of directors includes a designee of the secretary of the interior and six presidential appointees.

Unlike the managers of traditional parks, the Presidio board has a fiduciary obligation to generate revenues by leasing its buildings and using its property in ways that will eventually cover all operating expenses. The board may use the revenues for administration, preservation, restoration, operation and maintenance, improvement, repair, and related expenses.


The key element of the trust would be to give the trustees the responsibility for funding the management of the monument and the ability to make decisions about how to do so. A trust that obtains its operating funds from revenues would give managers an incentive to look carefully at ways to use the land to obtain funds that can fulfill the mission of the monument. A well-drawn trust document would clarify the goals and the steps that the trustees could take to achieve those goals.

More than 20 years after the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante, Americans continue to fight over the Antiquities Act. A trust approach to managing monuments, however, would avoid some of the most politically charged aspects of the disagreement while ensuring the involvement of local communities, fiscally sound management, and protection of valuable landscapes.

Today, the time may be right to leave the political gridlock behind and look for innovative management approaches for our public lands.

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