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Trump gives away public lands to special interests

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, hatless and wearing sunglasses, looks at ancient native ruins in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. (William Yardley/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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President Donald Trump has announced plans to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah by 85 percent and 50 percent, respectively. It is the clearest example yet of the Trump administration’s intent to offer our most treasured public lands to a handful of mining and fossil fuel companies.

The administration claims that there is insufficient public support for the monument designations, that they hurt the economies of surrounding communities and that they are outside a president’s legal authority in the Antiquities Act.

To bolster this argument, the Department of Interior opened a new public comment period on all national monuments, even though each one had already undergone years of public meetings, comments and negotiations with stakeholders. This mendacious process showed just how out of touch and deceitful the Trump administration is. Of the 2.8 million public comments, more than 99 percent supported maintaining or expanding national monuments. The American people spoke loudly about protecting public lands.

The notion that national monuments have a negative economic impact, like so much else with Trump, is not grounded in reality. There is plenty of evidence of the opposite. For example, a study found that in communities surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante, 44 percent of total private employment is in the tourism industry, personal income rose by 32 percent between 2001 and 2015 and jobs grew by 24 percent.

Opening up public lands for private exploitation doesn’t benefit communities economically in any sustained way, but does cause irreparable harm to the land. It gives away public assets and benefits fossil fuel and mining special interests that have the access to the administration.

Finally, the notion that actions to protect public lands taken by former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are illegal is a fantasy unsupported by serious legal analysis. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have used the powers of the Antiquities Act to protect large swaths of America’s cultural, historical and natural treasures.

The illegal action is actually what Trump did in reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The 1906 Antiquities Act does not grant the president the authority to revoke or reduce national monuments, and Congress specifically reserved this right for itself in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Many legal scholars, members of Congress and conservationists have expressed this view to the administration and will vigorously make the case in the federal courts.

The president’s actions don’t just matter to the Utah residents. California’s public lands enjoy broad support and are widely used by different communities. Sportsmen, native tribes, off-highway vehicle owners and environmentalists are putting behind old animosities in favor of effective action to conserve public lands.

While California’s public lands may be safe today, Trump’s actions are a watershed moment showing that our public lands could be hostage to the whims or capriciousness of whoever is president. That’s not worthy of the grandeur of our monuments, or of our democracy.

Chris Morrill is executive director of the California Wilderness Coalition, an Oakland-based statewide conservation group. He wrote this for the Sacramento Bee.

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