I’ll never forget standing in Glacier National Park in Montana for the first time. I was just 14 and traveling with my dad, my brother, and a few of my dad’s good friends. It was life-changing. We threw snowballs in July, gawked at disappearing glaciers, ate lunch by a frozen lake at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, and stood within Mother Nature’s great cathedral. This trip was my first experience out West. I saw the splendor or our nation’s public lands and I was hooked. I knew that I would forever be a supporter of preserving these important places.
President Trump recently stood before a crowd in Utah and announced two executive orders that would reshape Utah’s public lands designated as National Monuments by past presidents. The orders roll back some 2 million acres of land in Bear’s Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, designated by President Obama and President Clinton. To put that into perspective, the land removed from these monuments is almost the size of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. These cuts manage to remove 85% of the land that currently makes up Bear’s Ears and nearly 50% at Grand Staircase. By removing the status of National Monument, the land will be open to different styles of usage such as mining, oil production, agriculture, and cattle ranching.
The two monuments are open to hunting, fishing, off-road vehicle use, climbing, backpacking, and other forms of recreation.
When President Trump spoke before an enthusiastic hometown crowd in Utah, he said: “No one values the splendor of Utah more than you do… and no one knows better how to use it.” This is where the fundamental difference between most people who feel passionately about this issue starts. What is the government’s role in conservation in the United States? Historically, most Americans have believed the idea that the government works best when it governs least. This Public Lands debate finds itself at the center of that ideology. Are Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase a case of federal overreach, or is this land being justly protected?
Almost all public land is managed by four separate government entities: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife, and the National Parks Service (NPS). All of these sections of government are within the Department of the Interior, minus the National Forests Service which is managed by the Department of Agriculture.
Today, the National Forest Service and the BLM account for about 72% (440.2 million acres) of public lands. Fish and Wildlife make up about 15% (89.1 million acres), and the National Park Service contains the last 13% of public lands. All but 5 of the current National Monuments are managed between these four agencies, with the bulk of them under the NPS.
Unlike our National Parks, National Monuments can be created at the discretion of the President through the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Antiquities Act (AA) was created during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and it gives a president the power to protect public lands if they believe the land has “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest”. This act has been used over 100 times, with many monuments eventually becoming National Parks.
In an attempt to unravel many of Barack Obama’s acts as President, Trump’s actions towards these monuments are fairly predictable. Creating Bear’s Ears was the final act in office for the outgoing president. The Antiquities Act has been challenged before, and the Supreme Court has always stood by the presidential power to protect the land. Other presidents have removed land from monuments before, just not on the scale that Trump is advocating. The previous largest removal of land was from Mt Olympus under President Wilson during World War I in order to meet the demand for timber. The land removed was later returned to the monument, and then was given national park status. The Antiquities Act was not created to work backward. This is why we need to be passionate in the defense of our sacred areas. President Trump’s vision is threatening to destroy one of conservation’s greatest tools. If the Antiquities Act’s power is decided to include the dismantling of National Monuments, sacred lands all across the United States will be open to interest groups more concerned with making money than preserving American history and protecting ecosystems.
President Trump’s administration has shown little regard for the importance of conservation, clean energy, or preservation of culturally and scientifically important sites. There are over 100,000 archeological sites just within Bear’s Ears alone that need to be protected and maintained. Native tribes such as the Najavo Nation have thousands of years of culture and history located within the monument. Along with the obvious potential for degradation of the ecosystems involved, the new guidelines for the monuments will split the protected land into fragments. This leads to destructive habitat fragmentation. Any barrier in an otherwise natural environment can displace species and lead others to die out completely from the area.
It is worth mentioning that there is plenty of support for the shrinking of Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase from the local communities surrounding the monuments. The local people are directly affected by how preserving a large piece of land affects the economy. Most of the current job opportunities in those areas are tied to how natural resources can be used. The interesting part is that the land in question will still be managed by the BLM and is unlikely to be transferred to private landowners. Any companies that seek to use the land will be subject to the typical processes of using the government-owned land.
While many locals see a shrinking economy, I see an economy on the edge of massive opportunity in the service industry. Parks and monuments, if well facilitated, are able to bring in millions of visitors each year. Visitors will want places to stay, places to eat, and other services where they will be willing to spend their money. Restaurants, hotels, adventure resorts, and ecotourism business opportunities await anyone wanting to capitalize on the gateway towns. The monuments themselves will also need employees to maintain the park.
The mindset of capitalizing on natural resources in the west is an old story. Although the National Park Service wasn’t created until 1916 under President Woodrow Wilson, America’s Conservation Movement actually started with the towering top-hat, Abe Lincoln, when he designated Yosemite in California a National Public Park. This caused quite a stir since most people at the time believed the land out West to be almost endless with an infinite wealth of natural resources. Why would we block off an entire region of potential opportunity? It is fitting that one of our greatest failures in preservation happens here in Yosemite, the Nation’s third designated National Park.
No conservation story is complete without John Muir, one of America’s first and most passionate conservationists. If you are visiting the Yosemite Valley, you’re bound to stare in awe at the monolithic rock formations El Capitan and Half Dome as well as the picturesque Bridalveil Falls. This is the essential, must-see view of Yosemite that many feel is one of a kind. Yet John Muir described the nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley as having the same splendor as the Yosemite Valley. You wouldn’t be able to get the same feeling today if you visit the area, as it has since been dammed to create a reservoir that supplies fresh water to San Francisco and surrounding areas. Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, fought against the dam for years. He argued that preservation of such a sacred place was more important than capitalizing on it.
- Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.
Even though the valley was within park limits, Congress allowed the construction of the dam with the agreement that no power or water usage could be sold privately. This agreement was later violated. While the reservoir has been useful in providing some of the cleanest drinking water in the United States to residents in California, the valley was completely destroyed. The deluge of flood water wiped out entire ecosystems. Those that could flee were displaced into new habitats where they had stiff competition for resources. Those that were either rooted in or couldn’t run quick enough were destroyed.
If you’ve ever had an unforgettable journey through one of our nation’s protected wild areas, I imagine you’ve felt the same fascination I did at age 14. I hope that you’ll see the benefit of preservation instead of use. Some have turned a blind eye to the negative effects our human species is having on our only planet. Choose to stand with those who haven’t. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from John Muir.
“It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western
woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and
singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful
centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease,
avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot
save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” John Muir– 1897