Our Public Lands and Waters Belong to You and Me

For the first time in America’s history, many of our national monuments are at risk for industrial exploitation.
Credit: Alamy

For the first time in America’s history, many of our national monuments are at risk for industrial exploitation. 

Devils Tower National Park, Wyoming
Credit: Devils Tower

More than a century ago, some of the most important natural, cultural, and historic places in the United States were under threat. They were being destroyed by reckless looting, mining, logging, and other destructive acts. President Theodore Roosevelt responded with historic action, creating our first natural national monument to protect Devils Tower, the iconic volcanic outcrop in northeastern Wyoming. 

Since then, presidents from both parties have followed his lead. Together, they’ve set aside more than 100 special American places to be protected and preserved for all time as national monuments. They’re a vital part of our larger system of public waters and lands that together attract half a billion visits per year for recreation, reflection, and family gathers. They also contribute to an $887 billion–a–year outdoor recreation industry that supports 7.6 million jobs.

This natural legacy belongs to us all. From the awe-inspiring splendor of California’s giant sequoias to the majestic forests and mountains of Maine to the spectacular coral reefs off Hawaii, these monuments help to enshrine our common past. They honor the values that bind us as one and allow every American to experience the natural wonder of this richly blessed land much as the first Americans knew it.

Now, in a breathtaking betrayal of those unifying goals, President Trump has put many of these cherished monuments on the chopping block in a misguided effort to expose some of our most treasured lands and waters to more mining, drilling, and commercial development. 

It’s time to summon the spirit of conservation that Roosevelt championed and stand up for special American places. The Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1906, empowers every president to designate special places for protection as monuments in the public interest. It does not entitle any president to look backward and strip away those protections already in place. Trump is the first to try to flout the law.

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada
Credit: BLM

In an April executive order , Trump directed U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the status of 27 national monuments created during the past 21 years, with an eye toward scaling back or eliminating monument protections for lands long coveted by industrial and commercial interests. Among the monuments on the list are Giant Sequoia of California;  the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which is the so-called Grand Canyon of the Atlantic, off the New England coast; and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. Also in the crosshairs: Nevada’s Gold Butte, host to thousands of Native American petroglyphs and vital habitat for desert bighorn sheep, great horned owls, and other rare wildlife; Carrizo Plain, often called California’s Serengeti; and the Katahdin Woods and Waters of Maine.

Katahdin Woods and Waters, Maine
Credit: Edward Faulkner/Flickr

Past presidents designated these places only after years of analysis, public input, and review. They relied on exhaustive research, stakeholder engagement, and dialogue with business owners, farmers, ranchers, anglers, hunters, tour guides, and others. And they put in place professional plans that conserve and curate the habitat, wildlife, archaeological deposits, and sacred sites that make each monument a unique part of the national story we share. In turn, these preserved places have become economic engines. Studies show the growth of local economies surrounding national monuments after they’re designated, improving personal income levels and employments rates.

All that deserves to be respected, not swept aside as a handout to special interests. That’s the will of 98 percent of those Americans―2.7 million of them―who filed formal comments with Zinke’s office this summer in response to Trump’s order.

Paphanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Hawaii
Credit: Louiz Rocha

Zinke is due to make his recommendations by August 24. We don’t know what he’ll suggest because the review has been conducted the without transparency or logic. From the outset, it has been unclear which monuments were actually targeted, how the review was being conducted, whose voices would be heard, and what would drive Zinke’s decisions. He’s said he’ll make no changes to several national monument areas, including Hanford Reach in Washington State and Craters of the Moon in Idaho, citing Hanford’s value to anglers and hunters and Craters’ status as a testament to our geologic past. But he’s also indicated that other monuments might come under assault, already suggesting, for instance, that Trump should shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a wondrous expanse of red rock formations, sandstone canyons, and desert mesas that hosts more than 100,000 sacred and historic sites important to several Native American tribes.

Exposing our national treasures to the ravages of mining, commercial development, and drilling for oil and gas is a fool’s errand. It would put special American waters and lands in the hands of those who would dynamite, bulldoze, pave over, and drill irreplaceable sites that belong to us all. Industry would get the profit, special places would be destroyed, and we, the people of this nation, would be left the poorer.

These lands and waters don’t belong to the president, despite whatever he may believe.  They belong to the American people. The American story, in all its sprawling and rough-hewn majesty, is written on their landscapes. They remind us of what we share as a country, of who we are as a people, of what we value enough as Americans to protect and conserve. And we can’t—we won’t—let them slip away.

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