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Trump’s Destruction of National Monuments is Unethical and Short-Sighted

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
In early December, President Trump announced he would shrink the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Photo: James Marvin Phelps via Flickr

I believe that in the long run, many of the Trump Administration’s policies will be reversed since they do not reflect mainstream America’s culture and values. Many will never be implemented because his team is better at announcing policies than implementing them. Still, I admit I’m amazed that a third of the country seems to agree with him, though I suppose I should feel relieved that the other two thirds of America are appalled at this train wreck of an administration. The damage of these years will take time to repair, but Trump’s effort to open up lands preserved as national monuments, on the other hand, may well be irreversible.

Steve Cohen
Read more from Earth Institute Executive Director Steve Cohen at the Huffington Post. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

To Trump and his allies, money, the economy, and jobs are the only values that matter. The planet is here to be developed and exploited, and preserving lands so that our grandchildren and their grandchildren can visit and enjoy them is not high on the agenda. Last week, New York Times reporter Nadja Popovich wrote about the reduction of preserved lands at the Bears Ear’s National Monument. According to Popovich:

“President Trump on Monday announced deep cuts to the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, a site that has become the symbol of the battle over America’s protected public lands. The monument, a vast, remote stretch of red rock canyons, dotted with Native American sites, was reduced by 85 percent – more than a million acres – and divided into two disconnected parks. The nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, was also diminished by 45 percent.”

Words alone cannot convey the sense of loss this misguided policy will bring. Please read Popovich’s story and look at the pictures of the wonders that America will no longer preserve.

Some westerners have long considered the designation of these national monuments as illegal power grabs by “faceless Washington bureaucrats.”  In contrast, Native Americans and conservationists see the preservation of these lands as a moral imperative. Paradoxically, the stated goal of those seeking to open up protected lands for development is their desire to promote individual freedom. I hate to be the one to break it to them, but what’s left of the Old West is only there because the federal government made sure it couldn’t be developed. The world we live in and the country we live in has a lot more people than it used to. Without determined effort to leave some land undeveloped, it will all be developed. Like the world city of the fictional home planet in Star Wars, we may someday be entirely urban and need to find nature on some other planet. In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, we’ll have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” We’ve got plenty of parking lots, but only one Dark Canyon Wilderness.  The relentless march of land use development is part of America’s collective consciousness. Everyone knows that place they used to hike or camp that’s now a strip mall. Roads that used to be scenic and easy to drive are now choked in traffic with views obstructed by new condos and gas stations. The natural world is under threat and most people know it.

While many bad policy choices can be rethought and reformed, the development of conserved land is close to irreversible. I’m reasonably sure that God only places these wonders on our planet once. At one time, humans perceived the planet as vast and nearly infinite. Its resources were ours to use and nature was there for us to exploit. Today we know better. We cannot hide behind the excuse of ignorance. It was nearly half a century ago that William Anders of Apollo 8 took the iconic earthrise photo of the planet earth with the moon in the foreground. On Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo command module pilot Jim Lovell compared space to earth and observed in a famous broadcast from space that: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” Perhaps President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryann Zinke missed that broadcast. Zinke has an excuse, he was only seven years old at the time, but Trump was over 21–what’s his excuse? Why does he evidence no reverence whatsoever for the resource he seems to want to destroy? Perhaps he should switch from cable news to National Geographic or the Nature Channel every once in a while.

Trump and some folks in Utah will argue that they too want to preserve these lands, but wish to avoid the specter of federal control. They talk about “responsible economic development,” but even if some of the locals want that, it’s clear that many of Trump’s pals are more interested in coal mining than cattle grazing. Concentrating economic development and human settlements in the places we already live and moving from an economy built on one time use of nature’s resources to renewable resources are the keys to sustainable economic development. We need more conservation and more careful environmental stewardship, not more resource exploitation and sloppy, deregulated environmental management. As I note in my new book, The Sustainable City, we need to build well managed, low-impact, environmentally sustainable cities.

While I am a city person, more comfortable in New York’s Morningside Heights than the Adirondack’s Mount Marcy, I value both places and deeply respect the need to protect Mount Marcy. New York City was designed to be settled and developed. We have the density required to pay for the infrastructure and services that people need. We even have beautiful parks where city folks like me can sit and see trees and birds. But the history of New York’s Adirondack Park demonstrates the difficulty of preserving land in the face of development pressure. Even though a park was established by state law in 1892, permanent protection of the lands was not achieved until 1972. The historic land use and development plan, established by state law in 1973, regulates the private land within the park:

“In its simplest terms, the Plan is designed to channel much of the future growth in the Park around existing communities, where roads, utilities, services, and supplies already exist. Under the Act, all private lands in the Park are classified into one of six categories: Hamlet, Moderate Intensity, Low Intensity, Rural Use, Industrial Use, and Resource Management.”

The state officials in Utah so eager to escape federal dominance should take a close look at the checkered history of New York’s effort to preserve its forest lands in the Adirondacks. Their advocacy of local control would be more persuasive if it were accompanied by state protections of some of these lands.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, we can expect that the controversy over western land preservation is far from over. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the president the power to declare national monuments. It does not explicitly give him power to rescind these designations or significantly reduce the areas protected. And so the lawyers are teeing up their lawsuits and we can expect extensive litigation before these lands will lose their protection.

The legal battle will be long, expensive and complex, but the ethical issue is short and simple. Preservation of these lands is a moral issue, not a political, legal or economic issue. While formal religion doesn’t engage me very much, when I see these natural treasures I see and feel the force of the divine. They are awe inspiring and, frankly, if you are not moved by them, you cannot possibly be looking at them. We have a moral responsibility to leave these places the way we have found them so that our children and their children’s children can see them and revel in their presence as we have. Trump’s destruction of national monuments is unethical, immoral and, sadly, short-sighted. We owe it to our children to stop him.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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