Our National Monuments
***Note from the Author: I have never intended this website to be “political.” I hate the word “politics,” and don’t consider myself a Republican or a Democrat. What I do like, is to understand issues in a deeper way. And that’s what this piece is trying to accomplish: a deeper understanding of the issues that are currently affecting our national monuments. I’m presenting both sides, and from there, the reader is free to make up her own mind.
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish these natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, 1901-1909
On April 26th, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order, instructing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to examine 27 national monuments, to determine whether or not past presidents have overstepped their authority by setting aside tracts of land that are too large, thereby preventing commercial and private development.
Secretary Ryan Zinke is set to provide his recommendation to President Trump by May 26th, 2017.
Countdown Until National Monument Decision
About the Antiquities Act
Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, established the Antiquities Act in 1906, which gives Presidents the right to create national monuments on federal lands in order to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.” Many of these national monuments later became National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon.
As 93% of Americans support preservation of national parks, this seems to be a non-partisan issue. The American people overwhelming acknowledge the need for the federal government to protect and insure access to our nation’s greatest landscapes.
What Trump and some legislators DO seem to take issue with, is exactly how much land is being designated as national monument, since the Act states that the amount of land to be designated as monument should be “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
So this is, it seems, is the heart of the issue: have past Presidents, particularly in the last 20 years, designated too much land under the Antiquities Act, beyond the scope which the Act accords them?
History of the Antiquities Act
Why did Teddy Roosevelt create this Act in the first place? At that particular time in history, from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, all throughout the American Southwest, numerous archaeological sites were being looted, with artifacts disappearing into the hands of private collectors, even into overseas museums. The Act recognized the need for the federal government to protect America’s most valuable historic sites.
Teddy kicked things off with a bang by creating 18 national monuments, starting with Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. And since its inception, every single President since Teddy Roosevelt has exercised this right to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act ~ with the exception of Ronald Reagan.
Today, there are over 125 national monuments on over 100 million acres of protected, federal lands.
Once a President has designated a national monument though, it does not usually change how that land is used. Meaning: if leases for mining, drilling, ranching, or logging already exist on that land ~ then those activities can still continue. But it’s unlikely that new leases for industrial activities will be allowed.
Does Trump Have the Right to Revoke?
To provide some context: no President in history has ever revoked the designation of a national monument. No President has ever tried to do this. This is what brings Trump’s recent actions into question: does he even have the right to revoke a national monument? The Antiquities Act is brief, and does not specifically give the President this right.
The Antiquities Act gives the President the right to designate national monuments ~ however, it does not implicitly give him the power to revoke them.
What many historians do believe is that Trump, or any sitting President, has the right to change the boundaries of existing national monuments. And that is what seems to be under review right now.
Also meaning: if Trump tries to outright abolish certain monuments, he’ll have an out-and-out fight on his hands against nearly every environmental association in the U.S. ~ and history will be on their side, because this is an unprecedented move. And the Supreme Court has always voted for keeping national monuments, as is.
Who created the most National Monuments? Answer: Barack Obama. During his tenure, he designated 34 national monuments, far more than any other President ~ including Bears Ears National Monument, pictured above. This choice proved controversial not only because it covers a sweeping 1.3 million acres in southern Utah, but because, after three years of negotiations between the Utah legislature, the Indian tribes of Southern Utah, and Washington D.C. ~ Obama enacted this order rather stealthily, between Christmas and New Year’s of 2017. Utah legislators were not informed of his decision, but rather, found out about it in the newspaper.
This just gave Utahans another reason to be pissed off: before Bill Clinton left office, he similarly used his executive ability to set aside millions of acres, also in southern Utah, for the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. This angered many in the state because it meant that plans for a coal mine were cut off. And because the Federal Government already owns a whopping 66% of the land in Utah.
You can kind of start to understand why Utah is a little pissed off.
The Anti-Federalist Argument
The case of many anti-federalist Utahans, similar to arguments used before in Wyoming and Alaska (who now both require Congressional consent before a President can designate national monuments in their states), is that these Presidential executive orders prevent them from accessing their state’s own natural resources. Often, it’s also the manner in which Presidents have issued these orders, sometimes secretively, that has caused issue.
So now we can somewhat begin to understand Trump’s use of the phrase, “massive federal land grab.” Trump’s intent, he says, is to “end these [federal] abuses and return control to the people.” By which he means, return control to the states.
One important thing to note about the Antiquities Act: it only gives the President the right to designate national monuments on lands already controlled by the federal government. So this “massive federal land grab” Trump refers to is not exactly accurate ~ because in fact, the federal government already owns these lands. What would be more accurate for Trump to have said is, he wishes to transfer these lands into state control.
Map of Bears Ears
As can be seen below, Bears Ears represents a huge stake in the southeastern Utah landscape, which is why it is at the center of this current controversy and federal review. It’s also the most recent national monument to be designated.
Who is Affected By Bears Ears?
With the San Juan River and Navajo Nation to the south, Lake Powell and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the west, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks to the north, and Ute Mountain Tribe lands to the east ~ we’re talking about an immensely complicated, culturally-rich, beautiful but desolate landscape. This is the kind of landscape that the American west is known for.
Which also makes it immensely complicated to appease all the various factions who have an interest in this land: from the state of Utah, to the small towns that populate these areas, to the companies trying to mine coal and other resources in these areas, to the Indian tribes who’ve called these places home for centuries, to the general American public who have ~ as Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed, the right to see these great lands for themselves. For the wide-ranging opinions of those involved, simply read reactions to Obama’s designation in the Salt Lake Tribune here.
The Conservationists’ Viewpoint
We’ve taken a look at the Utah legislators side of this issue: the feds already own 66% of their land, and they want to be able to do with the rest of it what they see fit.
Then you have the viewpoint of the conservationists. Let’s pretend that the size of Bears Ears is scaled back, thus allowing for more drilling and mining, and access to all that beautiful coal that lies underneath Grand Staircase. IF something goes wrong, if there’s an accident or a spill, or just simply the pollution that comes along with coal mining occurs: take a look at that map. Take a look at Bears Ears’ proximity to the San Juan River. At the proximity to Lake Powell. To Grand Gulch. To the mighty Colorado River. To Glen Canyon. Canyonlands. To Arches National Park and Moab. And of course, to Bears Ears itself.
What IF something happens? Sure, there aren’t many major cities around. But what about all of these great rivers and landscapes ~ not to mention, some of our country’s most awe-inspiring National Parks? What happens to them if something goes wrong?
Articles to Enhance Understanding
This is a complex issue. We’ve taken a brief look at both sides. At first glance, it’s tempting to pit the “greedy capitalists” vs. the “do-gooder environmentalists.” But if you read the article from the Salt Lake Tribune above, with its wide-ranging opinions ~ you begin to understand that this is a little more nuanced than that.
Which is why I’ve included links to articles below from both sides of this issue, in order to help those who are interested in better understanding this issue.
- National Geographic: “What You Need to Know About Trump’s National Monument Re-Think“
- Washington Post: “As Zinke Listens in on Monumental Divide at Bears Ears…”
- National Geographic: “Incredible Pictures of 27 National Monuments Under Threat“
- NPR: “The Highs and Lows of the Antiquities Act“
- TheHill.com: “The Antiquities Act Has Been Hijacked…”
- Modern Hiker: “How to Comment on Trump’s National Monument Review”
No matter what side you’re on, there are actions you can take to make your voice heard in this conversation. Public comment was opened on May 12, 2017 and will be open until about May 26, 2017 ~ so VOICE your opinions now! Don’t wait. Below I’ve listed some steps you can take to be a part of this discussion.
- Click here to join the Sierra Club’s campaign ~ where you’ll be able to send a message directly to Secretary Finke, and to tweet and share articles from the Sierra Club.
- Call 1-202-601-3839 directly and let Secretary Finke hear your opinion, whatever it is, regarding the review of these 27 national monuments.
- If you’re on the side of the conservationists, and believe Bears Ears should be left as it is: text “DEFEND” to 52886. On Instagram, you can use the hashtag #ProtectBearsEars ~ particularly if you have a great shot of this or Grand Staircase Monument, or any of the great lands in Utah.
- Patagonia has recently announced they are pulling out of Utah’s tourism conferences (as have others, to the tune of at least $45 million in losses to the state of Utah), in opposition to the position Utah legislators have taken. Learn more about Patagonia’s stance here.
- Understand Utah’s side of things ~ visit their state government page here.
I’ve tried to look at both sides of the issue, to try and understand where President Trump was coming from when he issued this order. Because when I first heard that national monuments were threatened, my initial reaction was shock and anger; I immediately had to go out and research just what the hell was going on.
To have written this many words, and spent this many hours on research ~ tells me there’s something very important going on here. Important to me, anyway. The very idea that our wild lands could be threatened, even if there’s the slightest chance of it, is a deeply disturbing idea. And it is disturbing, because the truth is: we need the wild.
More and more, our daily lives grow less wild, more mechanized ~ filled with technology from the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep to a screen at night. Yet, deep down, we all yearn for the tonic that is nature. The tonic that is wildness. Teddy Roosevelt knew this. Thoreau knew this. Walt Whitman knew this. John Muir sure as hell knew this ~ which is why he founded the Sierra Club. All these men knew without question, that when our lives go too long without nature, humans suffer. It is in our nature, to be in nature.
What Do You Think?
This is a weighty subject, and I’m very curious to hear your thoughts. Where do you stand with regards to mining and drilling being allowed near our national parks, like the uranium mining taking place now near the Grand Canyon? How important is it to preserve our wild, untouched lands? Comment below and continue this discussion…