Why National Monuments are Worth Fighting For

Today the first domino fell in what I hope will be a long and protracted fight against the removals of federal protections on public lands throughout the west, but specifically in Southeastern Utah, where both the Grand Staircase National Monument and the Bears Ears National Monument were singled out as targets for “review” by Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.  As someone who has an intense personal stake in the preservation of public lands, as well as someone who supports Federal oversight of those lands, I wanted to take the time to point out why the designation of these National Monuments was such an important step in preservation of our both our natural and cultural heritage for generations to come.  

Argument:  “The designation of Bears Ears and other National Monuments is just another example of the Federal Government overstepping its reach and snatching up lands to keep from the public.”

A lot of the arguments surrounding public lands seem to deal with a general misunderstanding of the history of Federal stewardship over lands in the west, and as such I feel like this is probably a good leaping off point in a larger discussion of why these areas are protected in the first place, and why it is important that we continue to fight for these protections in the coming months and years.

Map of the 1848 Mexican Cession

Starting in 1848 with the Mexico Cession, the third largest acquisition of territory in U.S. History, behind the Louisiana Purchase and acquisition of Alaska, the United States Federal Government took control of the lands west of the Rocky Mountains in the only true “Federal Land Grab” of the area in its history.  The lands now known as the American Southwest were procured by the federal government as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and taken under federal control and protection until the post-Civil War westward migration brought private claims on these lands into conflict with Federal protections for the first time.

Prior to the first government sponsored surveys of the Southwest after the Civil War, much of the area we now consider Utah was largely unexplored territory, traversed in only select areas by Mormon Pioneers who first expanded into the region toward the end of the Mexican-American War.  These pioneers settled in a few small regions, their ability to survive on the land dictated largely by their ability to work with local Native American tribes and access to reliable sources of water.  Over the twenty years that the Mormons settled these lands, they slowly spread from the Salt Lake region south and east into areas like Green River and what is now present day Moab, and also down into areas like St. George along the Virgin River to the south.  These settlements were made under agreement with the Federal government, who, as I mentioned previously, “owned” these areas based on the aforementioned Mexico Cession.

Image result for mormon settlements in utah 1847
Map of Mormon Settlements in the Southwest

In reality, aside from these settlements, and the tribal lands of the Native Paiute peoples in the area, much of the land in southeastern Utah, and the American Southwest in general, was considered to be an arid wasteland, impossible to cultivate for agriculture, and of little value to the oncoming waves of settlers spurred to move west largely by a government led propaganda movement to settle the areas west of the Mississippi River that had been perpetuated since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  It was necessary, in the eyes of the Federal Government who held these lands, that they be settled to cement American influence in these regions to solidify borders.

In 1869, when John Wesley Powell set out on his first exploration of the Colorado and Green Rivers, he did so in advance of the coming tide of settlers, at the direction of the Federal Government, to determine both the viability of these areas for settlement, and the most effective means for distributing these lands to private claims going forward.

This is an important point that I don’t want to get lost in this larger discussion.  When the greater westward expansion moved past the Rocky Mountains, it was the government who was dispensing its lands to the public.  Any private claims to the lands in the Southwest came from the government’s dispersal of those lands.  In essence, the government always owned these lands.

As Powell conducted his survey of the Colorado and Green Rivers, he laid out what he felt was the optimal plan for tackling the settlement of the Southwest, namely, to allot claims not based upon the square allotments of the more verdant midwest, but upon the more meandering lines created by the various watersheds of the arid deserts of the west.

John Wesley Powell’s concept of how the Western States should be mapped, based on watersheds

Powell realized that access to water was the primary factor that would dictate both the settlement and prolonged habitation of the Southwestern United States, and, when he took over the United States Geological Survey and helped form the Department of the Interior as we know it, he did so with the thought of federal protections of these important watersheds as one of his top priorities.

When he submitted his Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States, Powell proposed the watersheds of the Southwest be utilized through irrigation systems that concentrated populations along those watersheds, and explicitly left the remaining lands for conservation and low-density grazing.  His arguments for small dams and equal access to water sources helped shape the early settlement of these areas, in a way that was both environmentally sound, and conducive to the growth of population centers in those areas.  He was later proven correct in his insistence on these principles when the dustbowl of the 1920’s hit, largely based on local municipalities and state governments ignoring his advice in favor of more widespread irrigation practices that did not take into account available sources of water.

Watersheds of the American Southwest (Colorado River and its tributaries in yellow)

The point of all of this talk about watersheds and how it relates to the preservation of these two National Monuments is the Colorado River itself.  The Colorado, as I’ve explained, is the lifeblood of the Southwest, and Federally controlled lands border almost its entire length throughout Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.  This makes the Colorado basin, and its watershed, one of the most contiguously protected watersheds in the country, precisely because of the needs of the people who live closest to it, not in spite of it.

Hite Crossing over the Colorado River, the bridge linking The Grand Staircase and Bears Ears National Monuments

Argument: “The designation of Bears Ears and The Grand Staircase as National Monuments is in direct opposition of the needs of local municipalities and populations”

If we operate based on the principle that Federal Protections are opposed to local interests, then we have to examine the ways those Federal Protections help or hinder local needs in these areas.  We’ve already discussed that the area around Bears Ears, and the Colorado Basin in general, have always been under federal control, but how has that control really affected local and state municipalities in these regions?

Federal Lands across the U.S.

In order for a National Monument to be made a National Monument, it has to already be under the stewardship of the Department of the Interior, and therefore Federally owned and operated.  The difference between Bears Ears as a National Monument and the area that it encompasses as it existed under BLM stewardship, is the prohibition on mining and grazing that comes with National Monument status, and this is the primary point of contention with most federal lands throughout the West.  Prior to its being designated a National Monument, Bears Ears was under the management of the BLM, and while still Federally operated, allowed for mining and grazing practices to be performed in these areas.

Map of Bears Ears National Monument

Mining is one of the primary drivers of the local and state economy in Utah, and therefore its importance in this discussion should not be ignored.  Because of a renewed insistence on coal and oil-based energy production within the Trump Administration, new sources of fossil fuels are being sought out across the country, and the world, and this comes into direct conflict with areas historically rich in these resources, but with restrictions upon the access to these resources.  Local economies in Southeastern Utah have long relied on extensive mining operations as a way of maintaining their ability to subsist in these areas, and as such they are easy targets for arguments favoring economic stimulus measures in regards to federal land protections.

The downside of this line of thinking does not look at the aforementioned importance of the Colorado River watershed to the sustained growth and viability of the Southwest as a whole.  Inherent to the mining of Coal, Uranium, Oil, and other such resources, most often named as targets for extraction in the areas surrounding the Colorado, is the accompanying waste and pollution that invariably is produced as a byproduct of any such mining operation.  In Utah, all water leads to the Colorado, and the water-hewn canyons of the greater Escalante and La Sal Wilderness areas all feed directly into the critical artery that virtually the entirety of the American Southwest relies upon for drinking and irrigation purposes.  To contaminate the Colorado with the waste from mining operations would be to exacerbate a problem that is already showing its effects in the area.  Loss of the Colorado River as a source of water would, without hyperbole, destroy the Southwest as a place where people can live.  Mining so close to it, in an ecosystem that is extremely fragile and vulnerable to even the smallest of changes, would have catastrophic effects down the road.

Newspaper Rock, one of countless Native American cultural sites in Bears Ears at risk if protections are removed

The argument that these National Monuments are against state and local preferences is also, frankly, an erroneous argument, not supported by the actual facts of the situation.  In 2016, before President Obama declared Bears Ears as a Monument, a Pew poll in Utah showed 55% of Utah residents supported designating the area as a National Monument, while over 70% of Utah residents felt The Grand Staircase had a positive effect on Utah since its 1996 designation.  Removal of these designations would not only implicitly go against the needs of the local populations, but would explicitly fly in the face of the stated preferences of Utah residents.

Argument: “By having these National Monuments in place, the Federal Government is impinging on the ability of the public both to make a living, and to access these places.”

Economically it doesn’t make any sense not to encourage the protection of these areas, as Federal lands, and particularly National Monuments, produce a massive amount of economic benefits to local regions.  In 2016, National Parks and Monuments contributed almost $34.9 Billion to the Federal Economy, a sum touted by Secretary Zinke himself as he celebrated National Park Week earlier this year.

The amount of money brought in by steady tourism to Federal Lands, as well as the immeasurable impact their status as National Monuments has on the interest of prospective tourists, is of far greater benefit at minimal impact to the local communities than it is given credit for.  Local communities like Mexican Hat, Blanding, and Monticello stand to profit greatly from the increased tourism to the area, in the way that towns like Moab, St. George, and Springdale continue to grow around Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands.

Removal of Federal Protections on these areas could not only contribute to the environmental degradation of the Colorado Basin, but could severely impact these communities in the years and decades to come, all for a likely short term boom from any mining operations that come in.  Mining is a terminal enterprise in any region, just look at the Eagle Mountain iron mine in Southern California, once the largest iron mine in the country, now a derelict ghost town on track for use as a waste dump.  The economic benefits of a National Monument would extend far into the future, as the continued growth of the outdoor industry, currently an almost $900 billion/year industry, would only fuel further growth in the areas surrounding these monuments in the years to come.

Bingham Canyon Mine, near Salt Lake City, the largest man-made excavation in the world, and an example of the damage unrestricted mining can have on the environment (photo courtesy weather.com)

Argument: “These lands are better served under State and Local stewardship than under Federal Protection”

There is a fallacy in the thinking that State and Local governments are more well equipped to handle the needs of these areas than Federal oversight would allow for, primarily because there is little data to support that theory.  What we do know is the extra cost that it is estimated will be incurred by handing over federal lands in Utah, based on a 2012 economic study.  Utah residents would have to assume the additional cost of nearly $275 million/year to maintain the federal lands in that state alone, which would put undo strain on their economy and ultimately, and this is probably the goal, lead to private enterprises assuming control of these areas.  Though Federal oversight is far from perfect, corporate oversight of environmental needs is almost universally bad, and it’s almost impossible to see what good could come for the state from having its economy saddled with the burden of maintaining the lands, only to then have to sell off those lands and watch them be destroyed by private and corporate interests.

The Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument

Needless to say, I’m taking a very strong stand today in opposition to the Executive Order that Donald Trump signed this morning, and hope that in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, that we will be able to prevent this gross negligence and incompetence from ruining these critically important and beautiful areas.

It’s been my hope with writing this post that it brings to light some of the issues we’re dealing with right now, and why it is vital to take a stand against these measures, but also to understand the ways in which the arguments made by the forces we stand against have little merit when viewed against the historical, ecological, and economic factors of the equation.

This is not a new fight, but rather a very old one, one that we’ve been waging since the U.S. first took control of these areas almost 200 years ago.  It is a fight I suspect we will keep having, and one that is worth having.

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