After months of consideration, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke submitted a proposal to President Trump on August 18, 2017 with the goal of shrinking the size of several national monuments.
The decision to slice-and-dice the protections on these lands comes at a time of great conflict between local ranchers and developers eager to make a profit, Native Americans with ties to the land, and conservationists attempting to oppose an administration that flirtatiously endorses coal and oil companies. On the surface, the issue seems primarily an environmental one, but this conflict demonstrates that it is also saturated in historical, economic, and social importance. Drastically modifying the boundaries of national monuments has an impact of such magnitude across the contours of society that such an impulsive decision can only be characterized as nearsighted in the long run.
“They say they’re going to trim around the edges, take off a little bit, but these places are getting smaller and smaller every year,” physics teacher and avid outdoorsman Adam Patheal said. “There should be some things that we value as a whole nation, some things that we can say, from a top-down federal level, should be protected.”
At one point, the federal government did, in fact, value places with historical and geological worth. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. This piece of legislation gave presidents the jurisdiction to protect wilderness areas with particular historical, geological, and archaeological import.
“Those three things needed to be true in order in order for them to become national monuments, and if we’re going to change them out of national monuments, then we’re basically saying that whatever site was there didn’t matter in the first place,” science teacher Alex Kirkpatrick said. “And I don’t think that’s true because they went out of their way to set it aside in the first place.”
Kirkpatrick, who is a former member of the Forest Service, emphasized the differences between protections on lands belonging to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Service. While BLM lands were created for development, such as fracking or mining, national parks and national monuments placed protections on land meant to be preserved for educational or tourist-use. That’s why conservationists are alarmed at Zinke’s decision to shave off parts of national monuments: it blurs the line between lands with clearly-defined purposes for usage.
“It’s a toss-up between: is nature more valuable or human development more important?” Senior Alexander Wolf, who is currently investigating public land usage in his senior inquiry project, said.
National monuments have historical significance for the indigenous groups that have lived in these areas for thousands of years. In such context, Zinke’s decision is just one more middle finger aimed at Native American communities, a generous splash of salt in the open wounds left by the Dakota Pipeline debacle and four hundred years of blatant disrespect.
Bears Ears National Monument, for instance, is home to over 100,000 archaeological sites with spiritual importance to many local tribes. A total of thirty tribes united in 2015 to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to attempt to protect these sacred lands. They proposed a federal-tribal collaboration in regards to land management, yet, in light of this country’s treatment towards its native inhabitants, it appears likely that their request will be denied.
Early American pioneers sought to conquer the frontier, to prove their dominance over nature by laying waste to it. The current generation has the responsibility of coming to terms with the destructive legacy of our forefathers. Not only will our response to such widespread destruction determine the character of our generation, it will profoundly influence the generations of tomorrow.
As the environmentalist David Brower once said, “We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
The reality is that facing such a colossal issue as “saving the environment” feels like staring down into a deep, dark abyss; a good, honest look at what natural disasters the future might hold could make even the boldest person feel weak and small. It is terrifying to acknowledge the consequences of our relationship with the wild. But equally terrifying is the thought that for every well drilled for a temporarily larger inventory of oil, every potash deposit mined for a few more bags of fertilizer, every strip of land carved to bits like a Thanksgiving turkey, we sentence our descendents to confinement in a concrete jungle.
“It seems like in some places, there’s more pavement than soil,” Patheal said. “Now, that’s not true for the whole country, of course, but to limit and take away those places, well, we have so few that are left.”