“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty [fifty] freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” – Aldo Leopold
In an unprecedented use of power, President Trump signed two declarations on December 4 to dramatically shrink the Bear Ears National Monument, a tract of land in Utah set aside for federal protection in 2016 by Barack Obama. The significant reduction of Bear Ears National Parks by 85%, from 1.3 million to 220,000 acres, sparked vocal cries from many groups with different agendas. Not only does this act raise the issue of balancing conservation with commerce, the lives of the local Native American tribes—the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute, and the Zuni—that hold the land as sacred, the local residents who stand to benefit financially, and the federal authority in setting aside huge swathes of land must be considered.
Through the Antiquities Act, national monuments, which are somewhat similar to national parks only that they are not created by Congress, have been set aside to protect millions of acres of land from development. During the final days of Obama’s presidency, he made an addition to the list of preserved lands in the United States and created Bear Ears National Monument because of its beauty—the “deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops” he described in his proclamation—and its significance to the indigenous tribes who fought for the protection of their cultural heritage and the 100,000 archaeological sites.
This act was controversial even before President Trump’s involvement: Republican leaders in Utah viewed it as an overreach of federal power. Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, said, “By unilaterally locking up 1.35 million acres—an area roughly the size of the entire State of Delaware—the president has misused his authority.” Two-thirds of Utah is controlled by the federal government, a fact that causes chagrin among the locals and state politicians. When news broke of Trump’s decision, they applauded his initiative and his sympathy to their plight, as they have pushed long and hard for more control over public lands.
With Trump’s proclamation and the ensuing legal battles, public lands may possibly be opened to commercial activities, but what about the existing industries that rely on the outdoors and the tourists willing to pay fees to for a breath of fresh air? In a world where the last havens of wildlife are losing land to commercial enterprises, national monuments and parks encourage the tricky balance between commerce and conservation. Last year, a record-setting 330 million people visited national parks. Therefore, 330 million people were educated about the importance of conservation and rekindled their love of the outdoors while supporting the outdoors industry, an industry that supports 7.6 million jobs and generates $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
The commercial activities Trump has in mind, such as drilling, mining, and logging, will stimulate economic growth—but at a great cost. Speaking at the Utah State Capitol, Trump said, “Some people think that the natural resources should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what, they’re wrong.”
Much like our country’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who marketed himself as the anti-establishment, patriotic champion of the common man, much to the detriment of the Native Americans livelihood, Trump’s move boosts his image as a populist leader. He sells to the everyman, suspicious of the federal government, fearful for their rights and economic standing, and angry at continuously being passed over by elites and for minorities, with this act that will, he claims, “usher in a bright new future of wonder and wealth.” However, this future of so-called “wonder and wealth” will come at the cost of the existing and undeniable “wonder and wealth” seen in the Bear Ears National Monument. And what is economic prosperity without the natural wonders to redeem the unsightly oil rigs?
Trump is already being sued by a coalition of five Native American tribes, several conservation groups, and the popular outdoor gear company, Patagonia, whose homepage features the words, “The President Stole Your Land,” prominently against a black screen. The imminent legal battle will have extensive implications: if the challengers win, the boundaries of Bear Ears will be secured and the Antiquities Act will survive. If not, then it can set a grim precedent for drastically cutting back existing monuments and opening them to harmful development.
In this tricky situation, there are many voices clamoring to be heard, many wants and needs to consider, many factors in play, but none of them are weightier than the preservation of humanity. There is no humanity without what gives us the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the vistas for inspiration. There is no humanity without the preservation of history, without a past to anchor ourselves to, and ergo, without a future to work towards because, without it, we will be reduced to particles of dust floating aimlessly in the indifferent universe. Empires rise and fall and species live and die, but the one constant is life. We must be worthy of this gift.