Anyone who has seen pictures of the Taliban-battered giant Buddhas in Afghanistan, or the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by Isis, will understand why environmentalists and naturalists are devastated by Donald Trump’s Executive Order calling for the identification of American national monuments that could be rescinded or resized. The destructive nature of that Executive Order is on a scale no less traumatic than the travesties committed by the world’s two most uncivilized bodies, and the fact that the present administration doesn’t get that is extraordinarily troubling.
With the stroke of his pen, the president opened the way to drilling, mining and other development on federal lands, lands like Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which together comprise more than three million acres that Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke claims to be of no concern to “people in D.C. who have never been to the area” and who have “zero accountability to the impacted communities.”
Mr. Zinke plans to advise President Trump to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to a scatter of isolated sites. The Utah monument is sacred to Native Americans seeking protection for Bears Ears because of its deep cultural and ecological significance. Tribal leaders have worked for nearly a decade to document the significance of this national monument.
These and other national treasures have been protected since 1906 when the Antiquities Act was passed. The Act gives U.S. presidents the power to keep vulnerable lands and waters safe. Virtually every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used it to protect archaeological, historic and natural sites from commercial exploitation.
Adam Markham, Deputy Director of Climate and Energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is one of the people speaking out about the president’s action. He points out that many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon and Death Valley. Designating such places as monuments kept them safe when congressional leaders with ties to special interest groups and industries involving coal, oil, timber and mining threatened their future.
Donald Trump’s April Executive Order “puts this important regulatory protection for conservation and historic preservation at risk,” Markham noted in a UCS blog. “The clear intention of the Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction.”
Mr. Trump has ordered a review of all presidentially-designated national monuments since 1996 if they are over 100,000 acres in size. And incredibly, the Department of Interior signaled in a press release that it has no intention of undertaking a fair, independent review by describing Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as “bookends of modern Antiquities overreach.”
The administration appears to be woefully out of touch with the impact of its threat to federally protected land and water. The National Park Service(NPS) oversees 59 national parks and many other natural and historic sites. They host millions of visitors every year, generating millions of dollars in tourism-related revenue. The NPS also employs over 315,000 people. Research shows that local economies expanded with monument designation. They will surely collapse when their beloved monuments are gone.
That’s in part why five sovereign Native American Tribes with ancestral ties to Bears Ears, including the Hopi and the Navajo Nation, have formed the Bears Ear Inter-Tribal Coalition, as if they didn’t have enough work to do trying to protect their sacred lands. Bears Ears is home to thousands of sacred and culturally important sites. Ceremonies are performed there and medicinal plants are gathered. Among its archaeological treasures are the Lime Ridge Clovis site which was inhabited over 11,000 years ago.
Amazingly, at the same time the president was signing the Executive Order and budgeting for a 12 percent decrease in the Interior Department’s funding, he declared that one of his administration’s priorities was “to protect these magnificent lands, and to ensure all Americans have access to our national parks, as well as to other National Park Service sites, throughout the next century.”
Thankfully Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL) has introduced the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act to protect over 9 million acres of land in Utah threatened by oil and gas development.
Seventeen other senators support the legislation.
But much more will need to be done to protect America’s beloved and diverse landscape, as well as magnificent sites like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and numerous other venues rich with Native American history, cliff houses, pictographs, ancestral remains and vistas of extraordinary range and beauty.
Preserving these vistas and their historical significance is a gift to future generations. They tell us who we are as a people and a country. To attack or abuse them is to bring down our Buddhas and our Palmyras. It cannot be allowed to happen.