America will defend its monuments

America will defend its monuments

Conservation Northwest / Apr 28, 2017 / Public Lands, Work Updates

Land grab politicians have misjudged the American people in their attempts to undermine national monuments and other public lands


By Chase Gunnell, Communications Director

There are lots of articles, editorials and calls to action going around this week regarding President Trump’s Executive Order to “review” national monuments, a blatant move to undermine the 111-year-old Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, in 1906. Amongst the coverage, I thought this was a particularly poignant take from The Seattle Times on the everyday Washingtonians who’ve long fought for these lands, and who’ll do so again if called upon.

“Trump has gotten the old turkey hunter to come down out of the woods, and the sheep farmer to come in from the field. Both to prepare to re-fight old battles long settled.” – Danny Westneat

As it happened, I was packing for a ski touring trip up Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument the night after the President’s Executive Order. This one hit close to home. But more than concerns about my outdoor recreation, the news, and Westneat’s column, got me thinking about who it is that really inspires the designation of our national monuments. And who’ll fight for them when they’re threatened.

Despite the fear-mongering from a few radical politicians and their short-sighted corporate backers, our national monuments aren’t “locked up”, they aren’t a federal land grab or an abuse of Executive power, and they sure aren’t against the will of the people, whom polls have consistently shown overwhelmingly support public lands and back national monument designations, including Bears Ears.

Instead, our national monuments, from the salmon spawning grounds of Hanford Reach, to the desert cliffs of Escalante and the pueblos and petroglyphs of Bears Ears, are special places set aside for future generations after much consideration at the urging of passionate local folks. What the President and a small group of cronies are forgetting is that these regular men and women—hikers and climbers, birdwatchers and history buffs, hunters, anglers and mountain bikers, local business owners and small-time farmers—sure as hell aren’t going to turn tail now.

I told my wife that national monuments might be my favorite conservation designation. She called me a nerd. But for those who follow the philosophy of Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, and Gifford Pinchot, in our modern era diverse national monuments perhaps best exemplify the purpose of conservation: to provide “the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.”

On Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a man who likes to tout his adoration for Roosevelt, stood with conservation leaders and the outdoor industry to announce that outdoor recreation now generates more than $887 billion in consumer spending. Beyond preserving our natural and cultural heritage, national monuments and other protected public lands are the backbone of an economic powerhouse that provides more than 7.6 million American jobs (more than the technology, construction and finance sectors). That the very next day Secretary Zinke would stand behind his boss’s attempt to undermine these very lands through mischaracterizations of local control is the type of deceit and short-sightedness that should anger Americans of all political stripes.

Beyond their sizeable contribution to jobs and GPD, national monuments are truly places set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, including those yet unborn. As Roosevelt famously spoke from the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1903, “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you.”

Designated by the president or Congress, national monuments are typically created from public land already owned and operated by the federal government, chiefly the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or U.S. Forest Service. Or in unique cases, they’re designated from land transferred to the government specifically for conservation or historical preservation purposes. From Hawaii’s WWII Valor in the Pacific, to New York’s Stonewall Inn and every expanse of wild country preserved as a national monument in-between, these places are some of the best of America.

Functioning in a role between more restrictive national parks and the national forests and BLM lands governed under a mandate that includes natural resource extraction, today our national monuments successfully balance sustainable commercial activities with stewardship of our cultural and natural heritage. With some reasonable exceptions, hunting, fishing and gathering remain open, as do traditional Native American uses and in many cases, livestock grazing. Similarly, responsible snowmobiling, ORV-ing and mountain bike riding is often allowed on national monuments outside designated wilderness areas. Far from being “locked up”, our national monuments are set aside for people of all levels of privilege to access, enjoy and benefit from, forever.

From outdoor industry titans like Patagonia to big media outlets and Western publications, many are now pointing out that rescinding national monument designations may well be illegal, something perhaps only Congress can do. And this Executive Order is sure to be mired in years of court battles if not blocked outright. I agree, and have faith in the legal minds who’ll soon take up that noble cause.

But more than confidence in courtroom tactics, I have faith that the land grab politicians and now President Trump have badly misjudged the American people. They’ve kicked a hornet’s nest, and as Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz can testify, millions of stingers are bared.

Our national monuments and other public lands aren’t a red vs. blue issue. Despite the propaganda from astroturf groups like the American Lands Council and Bundy militants, they aren’t a rural vs. urban issue. As the land grabbers and their extraction allies will soon learn, this is an American issue. These are our lands, and millions of Americans love and cherish them. We’ve fought hard to protect them, and for many of us they’re among the few matters we’d put it all on the line for.

We don’t just value and vow to defend these lands because they help power our economy, or because they give us places to play and learn, ground from which to nourish our bodies and souls. We protect them because they represent what truly may be America’s Best Idea, something that much of our planet missed the opportunity for, but here in the heart of a capitalist superpower we can still realize with some foresight and tenacity: that “we have fallen heirs to a most glorious heritage”, and each of us must do our part if we wish to preserve our wildness, history and culture, healthy homes for fish and wildlife, and places for all of us to find respite amongst a chaotic world.

As the land grabbers will soon learn, whether or not we each ever leave boot prints within them, Americans will stand for our public lands just as our public lands have stood for America.

For a list of all the national monuments threatened by this Executive Order, check out this graphic from the Center for Western Priorities.
Chase speaking at the Public Lands for All rally we organized in Seattle during the January 2016 takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Paul Bannick