Yosemite, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, the redwoods: they rank as some of the world’s greatest natural treasures. Numbered among America’s crown jewels -- and cherished by people all over the world.
But there’s something else they all have in common – controversy. Major controversy.
It’s hard to believe that there could be much that is controversial about The Grand Canyon, but even the grandest canyon on earth struggled to achieve its protected status. Efforts to protect the Grand Canyon stalled for decades before President Theodore Roosevelt was granted authority under the Antiquities Act to unilaterally set aside tracks of federal land as preserves and national monuments.
Finally, the story of the Grand Canyon had a happy ending – except it didn’t. The battle to preserve this wonder of the world would wage on for years, and years. The State of Arizona, and more specifically Senator Ralph Henry Cameron engaged the federal government in a bitter battle over the fate of the Grand Canyon that echoes in every debate over monuments and public land to this day.
This drama has played out time and time again. The venue changes but the arguments remain the same, whether speaking of the The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone or any number of land preservations. And here we are yet again. The newest episode in this serial having begun on April 26, 2017.
President Donald Trump signed an Executive order calling for a “review” of dozens of national monuments. Stating before even signing the order that “[Now] we are going to free [the land] up.” Adding, that these designations “should never have happened.” Then going on to emphasize his special interest in Utah’s monuments.
When listening to Utah’s delegation to Washington discuss Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments they tell a sad story of down trodden citizens, of Washington’s disregard for local input, and abuses of power by past presidents.
It’s a simple story with simple villains, but reality is not at all that simple.
If you travel to Utah and speak to residents you’ll find their feelings on the subject are not as singular as that of Utah’s representatives. Sure you’ll find plenty of individuals, who oppose the monument designations of the past 20 years and would like Trump to partially or wholly repeal monument status, but then again there are plenty who support the designations and then there’s everyone else in between.
Take Bears Ears - If you listen to Senators Hatch and Lee, or Representatives Chaffetz or Bishop you could be forgiven for thinking the people of Utah hold nothing but indignation for President Obama’s December 2016 designation.
Not true. In fact, at this point it’s hard to determine a clear majority either in support or opposition to Utah’s newest monument. The results of numerous polls illustrate a tight conflict of opinions. Some polls suggest a small majority oppose the monument others a small majority support it.
It seems the people of Utah are still making up their minds. Something their representatives continue to ignore.
Ok, so what about Grand Staircase-Escalante then? Twenty years young and still as controversial as ever right? – Nope. After 20 years, a clear majority of Utahns support preserving Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, citing the areas unique beauty and the boost it’s given the state’s economy. Utah as a whole wants President Trump to leave Grand Staircase-Escalante alone. Again, an inconvenient truth Utah’s elected officials continue to ignore.
When President Bill Clinton took up his pen and created the nation’s largest national monument from the rim of The Grand Canyon it caught many in Utah by surprise. The response was not generally positive especially within a heavily Republican state without much affection for President Clinton.
Rural Utahns feared the monument would destroy their way of life, outlaw hunting, livestock grazing and some forms of recreation, but it didn’t. The monument would continue to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management and not the Park Service. A model which is being built upon for the new Bears Ears National Monument with additional oversight by the Forest Service and a tribes commission representing the interests of 5 local tribes.
Grazing is still permitted on more than 96% of the monument. Hunting continues as it did before the designation with permits issued by the state. OHV access continues on miles of primitive roads.
Then what did change you ask? Vandalism and destruction of historical artifacts now carry greater penalties, funding for management of the land has increased, and mining and energy extraction are prohibited.
It’s that last point which frustrates Utah’s officials the most. The state decided long ago to make much of the state’s funding for public education dependent upon revenue generated from leases of state land sold to mining and energy companies.
Resource extraction is the only use currently prohibited within Utah’s monuments. While Utah’s politicians continue to claim preservation would be best accomplished by the state, Utah’s historical approach to land management is not very conservation oriented. Using Google earth and other modern maps of energy development on public lands it’s easy to see how Utah has chosen to manage state lands.
It’s the state’s lopsided focus on resource extraction and the continued misrepresentation by their elected officials that has forced many Utahns to appeal to Presidents and their delegated authority under the Antiquities Act to preserve vulnerable and unique landscapes and historical sites.
The threat to Utah’s public lands is perhaps illustrated best by an interview with Utah’s current Governor where he advocates for the “privatization” and “liquidation” of Utah’s and the nation's public lands. Forgetting, that a liquidated asset is of no more use to the people.
Such is the climate of the public lands debate in Utah. There are legitimate concerns about the amount power granted to the president under the Antiquities Act and whether that power can or has been abused. But when you appreciate the fate of public lands controlled by the state of Utah you begin to appreciate the tempered presidential use of the Antiquities Act.
Utah is very proud of its five national parks, Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Capital Reef, numbered among some of the countries greatest treasures, conveniently forgetting that four of their Mighty 5 parks, like most of America’s treasured national parks were originally set aside as national monuments via unilateral action under the Antiquities Act.
But isn’t congressional action the more ideal method for protecting America’s Wild Spaces? Absolutely! Utah’s Washington delegation in fact attempted over the past several years to present a congressional solution to preserving Bears Ears, but due to Utah’s insistence that the Antiquities Act be rendered null and void in Utah and that the federal government transfer large portions of federal land and roads to the state - the bill failed.
Again illustrating that when natural and historical treasures face imminent threat only unilateral action by the President is fast acting enough to grant protection to what might soon be lost.
How then do we keep Presidents from abusing this power? For that we have Congress, the nation’s high courts and most importantly the voice of the people. We are the ultimate check to the President’s power.
These lands belong to the people of the United States and again it’s time for the people to let the President know what we want to do with our federal lands.
The threats are real, and time is short. Public comment on the fate of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments will only be considered if submitted by May 26, 2017 and June 10, 2017 for all other monuments currently under review. For a list of all monuments affected by Trump’s April 26th executive order click here.
We began with the Grand Canyon and we’d love to tell you that the Grand Canyon came through unscathed, but it didn’t. Many visitor to the canyon have stumbled upon areas with signs posted warning, “Caution: Radiation Area. Keep Out”.
That’s right radiation – an unfortunate aftereffect of mining within the canyon more than 100 years ago, and possibly the result of modern uranium mining outside the national park boundaries.
The decisions we make today will have long lasting effects on our public lands and generations to come. Let your voice be heard. Click here to contact Secretary Zinke and click here to write to the office of the President and you elected officials.
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