Bears Ears and the ‘wonderful grandeur’ of Western lands
“I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
— Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon
Teddy Roosevelt is the greatest conservationist politician in U.S. history. After establishing five national parks, he signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, giving the president discretion to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest… to be National Monuments.” T.R. took full advantage, establishing 18 national monuments during his presidency.
By way of T.R.‘s Antiquities Act, President Obama designated the Bears Ears and Gold Butte National Monuments in Utah and Nevada near the end of his term. Obama, like Roosevelt, will leave a legacy of conservation: 548 million acres of federally-protected land during his presidency (to Roosevelt’s 290 million).
Not unexpectedly, Mr. Obama’s designations drew sharp fire, especially from Utah political leaders. The common complaint, summarized by Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes’s comments on Bears Ears: “President Obama has chosen to circumvent all democratic processes and lock up nearly two million acres of land from use based solely on ideological principles.”
The counterpoint, from Jennifer Rokala of the Center for Western Priorities: “President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act confirms why it is just as important today as it was when Teddy Roosevelt signed the act into law 110 years ago — when a dysfunctional Congress fails to do its job, the president must have the authority to protect America’s natural and cultural treasures for future generations.”
Obama’s last-minute designation of Bears Ears and Gold Butte come at a time when GOP leaders have put public lands policy back into the limelight. On Jan. 24, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz submitted a now-dead bill, HR 621, calling for the sale of 3.3 million acres of BLM-managed land in 10 states. HR 621 was the latest in a string of more than 40 GOP-sponsored bills since 2013 submitted to Congress to reduce federal control over public lands, or to divest-and-transfer federal lands to the states. Even though Chaffetz’s HR 621 is gone, other proposals have popped up in its place.
On March 3, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop asked the Treasury Department to allocate $50 million “to account for the costs to transfer federal land to state or local governments.” The Congressional docket also features several divest-transfer bills, now in committee: HR 622, to strip the BLM and Forest Service of law-enforcement authority; HR 232, to manage 2 million acres of Alaska National Forest land solely for timber harvesting; S 273, to give states full authority over plans to restore sage-grouse habitat. And just this week, the president discarded the BLM’s 2.0 land-use planning rules. Also rumored are efforts to un-list the 29 national monuments created by the Obama Administration and to repeal the 1906 Antiquities Act itself. (It should be noted: these bills trumpeting local control were largely written by D.C.-based lobbyist organizations.)
Designation of national monuments transfers land into the public domain: the people own the land, permanently. With the Colorado National Monument, multiple wilderness areas, and millions of acres of national forest land in our backyard, we know and love the recreation opportunities offered by the people’s ownership of the land.
But aside from recreation, the intrinsic value of open spaces — openness in and of itself — is essential to our identity as a nation. This is the “wonderful grandeur” that “man can only mar,” per Mr. Roosevelt.
Locally, many people lament that resources within these protected lands are “locked up” and not available for private industry. I would give my perspective on the ever-present debate between environmentalism and private industry, but once again President Roosevelt did it better: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
A substantial part of the greatness of this nation lies in its open spaces. My fellow millenials and I, who choose to live in this area for its magnificent landscapes, are perplexed as to why conserving land and resources for future generations is anything other than a nonpartisan issue.