Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrapped up the first leg of his multistate “listening tour” last week in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. At the behest of his boss, President Donald Trump, Zinke will be visiting many of our national monuments between now and late August to decide whether they’re worth keeping.
Last month, Trump signed an executive order compelling the Department of Interior to review more than two dozen parcels of federal land that have been designated as national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Officially the tour represents Zinke’s attempt to carry out Trump’s order, by engaging with local stakeholders who may or may not support the designations and by hearing them out as they give their reasons.
But whether Zinke is conducting his listening tour in good faith remains to be seen.
Far more likely is that he’s setting the stage for a wave of rescissions and reductions in monument status for some, or perhaps all, of these sites. President Trump, after all, has made quite clear he believes that the designation of 27 new national monuments since 1996 constitutes a “massive federal land grab” and that only a sweeping federal remedy can “end these abuses and return control to the people.”
Never mind that the president’s statement betrays his profound misunderstanding of what a national monument even is. All the lands in question were federal lands before their designations, meaning that they were already owned by “the people.” Returning them to Americans isn’t what Trump’s ordered review is about, anyway. It’s actually about opening up these areas to mining, logging, and drilling interests—either by greatly reducing the amount of land under protection or by doing away with the national monument designation altogether—and trying to pass the decision off as principled rather than greedy.
As it happens, Zinke’s visit to Bears Ears may have already given away the administration’s game. Though he had indicated that he wanted to hear all sides and consider all viewpoints, the vast majority of Zinke’s interactions were with those who support rescinding monument status for these 1.3 million acres. Unlike his predecessors, Zinke did not hold any public meetings over the course of his four-day trip, choosing instead to spend most of his time with politicians and fossil fuel executives. The interior secretary reportedly spent fewer than 30 minutes with area environmental groups concerned about the physical exploitation of Bears Ears, and only an hour listening to local tribal leaders who are worried about its desecration. Prior to his visit, tribal leaders reportedly couldn’t even get Zinke to return their phone calls to try to set up a meeting.
To the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian tribes that have lived in and around Bears Ears for tens of thousands of years, this is sacred land with more than 100,000 sites that have held, and continue to hold, extraordinary meaning for indigenous peoples. In the words of President Barack Obama, who designated Bears Ears a national monument last December, these sites form a collective “cultural record” that tells the stories of Native American lives and struggles.
But the land isn’t just a part of these tribes’ pasts: It’s also an essential part of their present. As Obama’s very-much-worth-a-read presidential proclamation points out, Bears Ears remains a crucial repository of cultural resources for native residents: a place where ancient traditions of hunting, fishing, and wood-gathering are still practiced and where traditional plants, herbs, and other materials are still collected for use in rituals and ceremonies. “Such knowledge,” Obama wrote, “is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come."
Or we could just hand it over to mining and logging companies, oil and gas drillers, and other developers.
Perhaps Secretary Zinke was listening closely to the pro-monument voices he heard last week, during the approximately 90 minutes he granted them an audience. Maybe their message got through to him on some level and gave him insight into why this majestic swath of land—not just some of it, but all of it—deserves the added federal protections that a national monument designation provides. If that message got through, then I greatly look forward to reading the recommendation he’s obliged to give his boss on or before June 10.
But if Zinke still needs convincing, maybe John Muir can help. Muir, the 19th-century Scottish-American writer and naturalist who founded the Sierra Club and advocated vigorously for federal protection of our wilderness, practiced a highly spiritual form of environmentalism that emphasized the intrinsic divinity of nature. He was a devout Christian who had almost nothing in common, theologically speaking, with Native Americans, but who nevertheless shared with them a deep-seated belief that the planet’s wild places were sacred and that their defilement by man represented a moral, even cosmic, tragedy.
Two of Muir’s observations—one poetic and prayerful, the other grim and admonitory—come to mind at this fraught moment, when Trump and Zinke are busy weighing the manifest sacredness of Bears Ears against its crass commercial utility. In his 1912 book about Yosemite, a wild place he may have loved more than any other, Muir wrote:
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
Despite the shameful use of this passage earlier this year by EPA chief Scott Pruitt, it is about as sincere and universal a plea as can be imagined for measuring the value of spaces like Bears Ears in spiritual rather than purely economic terms. But implicit in Muir’s words is a dark warning that he expressed more directly in an earlier piece of writing. “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods,” he observed in 1901. “But he cannot save them from fools.”
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