What We Choose To Save

"National monuments are about more than scenery."
01/06/2017 05:57 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2017
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Bears Ears and Gold Butte, that between them protect a little more than 1.6 million acres of land in southeastern Utah and southern Nevada. I wrote about Bears Ears last summer, and you can learn more about both of these new monuments in this piece by Sierra magazine’s editor, Jason Mark. My family and I visited part of what will now be Bears Ears National Monument on a road trip through threatened lands in the Southwest a couple of years ago. All I can say is you need to visit and see these parts of our country for yourself; I guarantee you won’t regret it.

National monuments are about more than scenery, though. They are irreplaceable landscapes and places that can be unique on many different levels, including their human history. A significant feature shared by these two newest monuments is that they will preserve lands and protect threatened cultural artifacts important to Native Americans. In the case of Bears Ears, local Native American tribes will, for the first time, directly participate in the management of a national monument, hopefully setting an important new precedent for conservation cooperation between the U.S and tribal governments.

With 29 national monument declarations or expansions to his credit, President Obama has invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act more than any other executive. Less obviously, he and his administration have been exemplary in choosing declarations that balance historic, cultural, and natural criteria — and in making sure that local communities are involved in the process. The original Bears Ears monument proposal, for instance, was developed not by Washington bureaucrats but by an unprecedented Inter-Tribal Coalition, which included Hopi, Navajo, Ute, and Zuni tribes.

President Obama’s smart and principled use of the Antiquities Act has enabled him to develop an impressive public lands conservation legacy that stretches from the outer reaches of Hawai’i to the woodlands of Maine. It incorporates cultural and historic landmarks significant to Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans, Japanese Americans, women, and, for that matter, every one of us. This is exactly how the Antiquities Act should be used.

That’s all great news, but it could get better yet. President Obama still has a fortnight during which he can extend that legacy even further by making additional designations and expansions. At this point, though, the clock is really ticking, because everything changes on January 20.

Which brings us to the not-so-good news. When Donald Trump takes office, it means two things for public lands protection. First, we no longer will have a champion for public lands in the White House. If anything, we can expect the opposite. Second, the Republican leadership in Congress will mount the most aggressive attack on public lands protections in our nation’s history. It’s a given that they will try to undo as much of the Obama legacy as they can, but that’s only where their intentions begin. Ultimately, they want to end public lands protection completely, and they’ve already made their first move.

This week, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a “rules package” that declares that any legislation that disposes of publicly owned land, oil, gas, or other mineral resources will be considered “budget neutral.” The purpose is to let Congress sell (or even give away) public lands and energy resources — with no financial accountability to the American public, which actually owns those lands. Basically, congressional Republicans are paving the way to liquidate our public lands, and hoping no one will notice. After all, no future president, however enlightened, can protect public lands that no longer exist.

Mollie Beattie, who served under President Clinton as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s first female director, once said that “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.” What would it say about our country if we allowed places like the Bears Ears to be sold off, vandalized, or destroyed? Not for a hundred years have we been so perilously close to learning the answer to that question.

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