This past April, the Trump administration first announced plans to review 27 national monument designations, allowing the Interior department to consider oil, mining, and timber opportunities on public lands. The recommendation was delivered to Trump this past Thursday by interior secretary Ryan Zinke, and fears of conservationists nationwide were confirmed. While Zinke said that none of the 27 sites would revert entirely to state or private ownership, according to sources briefed on the decision, he recommended the shrinking of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, as well as the Cascade-Siskiyou monument in southwest Oregon.
While there is considerable doubt as to the legality of removing a national monument status, conservationists are rightly concerned the review will lead to the exploitation of natural resources in these areas, at the expense of conservation. For a wide range of reasons, the Trump administration should preserve these monuments as they are.
Conservatives and Republican politicians have campaigned against the use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which provides the legal foundation for the unilateral designation of national monuments by the executive branch. Obama’s designation of Bear’s Ears, and his expansion of Cascade-Siskiyou, have proven particularly controversial. Alongside Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was designated by President Clinton in 1996, these monuments are now in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.
The case against the national monument designations is multifaceted, yet ultimately weak, and often deeply ideological, though it is often presented under a thin veil of practicality. Often, local conservatives are opposed in principle to the management of vast portions of land by a far-off bureaucracy in Washington DC. In the western US, the federal government owns about 640 million acres, including nearly 62 percent of Idaho, 63 percent of Utah, and almost 80 percent of Nevada.
The alternative would be to either have this land managed by state or local government, which offer limited resources for protection, or to transfer it to private buyers.
According to Utah State Representative Ken Ivory:
“It’s terrible. Because they’re treating the land like it’s a museum. Right? They lock it up. Hands off. Don’t touch. It makes no sense to have a distant, unaccountable, non-transparent bureaucracy do a one-size-fits-all, hands-off, don’t-touch management policy.”
When President Trump ordered the review of the monuments in April, he said such designations can “create barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict public access to and use of federal lands, burden state, tribal, and local governments, and otherwise curtail economic growth.”
Trump’s statement certainly reflects the concerns of conservatives, such as Ivory, over federal land management. But does it reflect reality?
First of all, Trump’s claim that national monuments are standing in the way of energy independence is fundamentally misleading. The US is already extracting plenty of oil and other resources from western lands, often at record levels. In 2015, a daily average of 9.43 million barrels of oil were pumped in the US, the highest level since 1972, and double the amount extracted in 2008. Natural gas production reached an all-time high in 2015. As such, a glut has seen prices fall for natural gas, oil, and coal. Falling prices have meant that many oil and gas companies simply can’t afford to drill more. Shrinking national monuments to extract even more makes little financial sense.
As to Trump’s claim that monuments limit the public’s access to land, this is also misleading. Monuments allow for a wide range of uses including regulated grazing and logging, hunting, fishing, and even the use of motorized vehicles on designated roads. Fully prohibited activities most often include the lease or sale of land for mining and other extraction, or the removal of artifacts from the land. These prohibitions are essential to keep the land available for other public uses, and for future generations.
Trump’s last claim, that shrinking national monuments will allow for more robust economic growth, is also a fallacy. Montana-based Headwaters Economics showed that the counties adjacent to monuments enjoy continued, or even increased, prosperity after monuments are designated. They analyzed 17 national monuments, and found that not a single adjacent county experienced economic decline after the designation of a national monument. They found that incomes increased near monuments such as Arizona’s Ironwood Forest monument, and Craters of the Moon national monument, in the 15 years after their designation in 2000.
In the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, now in the crosshairs of the administration, per capita incomes have increased 28 percent since its designation in 1996, and employment has risen 40 percent in adjacent communities. For ranchers, grazing within the monument has remained nearly unchanged since its designation. While it is not possible to prove a causal relationship based on such figures, it does disprove the claim that national monuments stunt economic growth.
On the other hand, the list of reasons to preserve national monuments is as wide-ranging as it is long. Bear’s Ears protects ancient cliff dwellings and one of the largest collections of native American artifacts in the western US. Cascade-Siskiyou was the first monument established solely to protect its biodiversity, and is home to threatened species such as the spotted owl. Grand Staircase-Escalante includes a series of massive plateaus and deep gorges, considered a geological treasure, as well as archaeological sites, and 300 animal species including the endangered desert tortoise.
As they are, these sites are not only protected for the future, but allow for regulated access by all Americans, for a wide range of uses. The argument against these sites is specious, and largely an ideological one. The Trump administration should take a practical approach and preserve these sites for current and future generations of Americans.