Magann: This Land of Mine

President Donald Trump should not be allowed to minimize public land.

by Matthew Magann | 1/12/18 12:15am

This past December, I spent some time with the Dartmouth Outing Club in Big Bend National Park, out in West Texas along the Mexican border. We hiked through dry washes and over plateaus and camped out along bluffs by the Rio Grande. Driving out on the morning of the last day, I saw the sky flare up red along the horizon, a stark beauty against the desert.

While driving on the I-20, my phone lit up. President Donald Trump had signed an executive order removing huge swathes of two National Monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, from protection. He called it a blow to those who “think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.” But the place I’d just left was not a place for “very distant bureaucrats;” it was a place for all Americans. As outdoor clothing brand Patagonia describes on its website’s homepage: “The President Stole Your Land.”

The politics of land and resources in the American west is intensely complex, with conservationists, ranchers, miners, developers and a few dozen other interests all vying for influence. Of course, our society needs resources; so much of the country’s land cannot be conserved. Because of this, a large portion of Western land is left available for resource extraction. Is it so radical to set aside some of the remainder for preservation? Most Americans don’t think so: Support for national parks crosses party lines, and parks like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone have long been a source of national pride. Yet as Trump’s announcement shows, even wilderness preservation has recently become nationally contentious.

The anti-conservation movement does not represent the interests of most Americans. Nevertheless, opponents of public lands have managed to insert their ideas into mainstream discourse. Trump’s announcement flowed with their rhetoric. The president phrased his removal of national monument status from large portions of two monuments, potentially opening them to development, as restoring “the rights of this land to your [Utah’s] citizens.” Of course, he neglected to mention that every one of Utah’s citizens currently has a right to the national monuments. The monuments are public land, and they belong to us all, Utahns included. Instead of restoring rights, eliminating protected land removes the right of current and future generations to experience the wilderness. A few individuals or corporations might gain resource rights over the land, but Trump’s announcement restricts access for the vast majority of Americans while threatening our natural environment. The president’s proclamation tramples on the common interest of America’s people in favor of a few special interests. No amount of rhetoric can hide that.

In today’s polarized environment, similar rhetoric is doing its best to make conservation a partisan issue. Far-right publication Breitbart’s article on the downsizing of the monuments was quick to mention “outcry from leftist environmentalist groups” in the wake of Trump’s announcement. By casting conservation as an issue of big government versus the people, some on the right attempt to make the anti-conservation movement seem like a logical extension of conservative principles. And frankly, it isn’t.

Understandably, conservatives may be more sensitive about government overreach than liberals. They may side with industry in particular instances where conservation conflicts with abundant resources, as in Alaska’s oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But think of former President Theodore Roosevelt, America’s great champion of conservation. He fought wars, hunted big game and pursued an aggressive foreign policy; he was no urban liberal. But he still recognized the importance of preserving America’s natural lands, what he called “the most glorious heritage a people ever received.” Imagine what would have become of the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake or countless other national treasures had Roosevelt not protected them.

And despite the claims of some groups, national parks are not government overreach. The government is the only organization capable of conservation on a large scale. Private charities lack the funds to conserve land on the same scale as the federal government, and without public conservation land, we would lose our natural areas to development. If we want to preserve the American wilderness, as many clearly do, our government must play a role in protecting and administering public lands.

But what of those who stand to lose from land preservation? What of a rancher who grazes his cattle on a proposed monument or a mining company eager to extract mineral resources? Yes, these individuals may lose some profit. Yet they can still pursue their industries in the large majority of land still open to development. And land preservation still benefits them — conservation has well-documented economic benefits. The National Park Service faced intense local opposition when creating Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, with Wyoming’s governor threatening to remove any federal official from the land. But today, the area around Grand Teton benefits tremendously — in 2010, Teton Country made $18.9 million in sales tax alone, partly due to the park’s presence. Instead of forcing insufferable restrictions, the creation of Grand Teton National Park boosted the local economy while allowing people to experience the area’s natural heritage.

America is fortunate to contain awe-inspiring natural landscapes. Protecting that wilderness is in the best interest of all Americans. Trump’s recent announcement may have cloaked itself in anti-establishment rhetoric, but at its core, it translates to the theft of public land from the American people. America’s natural beauty belongs to us all, and every American should take pride in protecting our nation’s public lands.