Well, I’d intended to take an indefinite break from this blog, but circumstances have compelled me to post once again. My apologies.
It seems that there are two kinds of people in this world: the short-sighted and the far-sighted. The short-sighted are those who measure the value of things in an extremely limited way, both time-wise and socially; they want what they want, and they want it now. Because of that outlook, short-sighted types tend to be impatient, acquisitive individuals. Further, their interests are their own, superseding those of everyone else, including future generations. But history shows that these people also often shortchange themselves with their narrow points of view.
Such is the case with President Trump’s recent decision (among a string of anti-environmental moves) to review the status of the 27 National Monuments created since 1996, with an eye toward rescinding their federal protections from extra logging, mining, oil drilling, commercial development, off-roading and unrestricted cattle grazing. All ecologically destructive activities. According to Trump, the protections afforded these monuments amount to “a massive federal land grab” that “should never have happened.”
This review of his is likely at the behest of malcontents (including extremist militias), and resource extraction interests in the notorious so-called “sagebrush rebellion” and “wise use” movement. The kind of people who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year. See this site for some eye-popping comments by one of the founders.
To be sure, national monuments don’t enjoy the same protections as national parks. Existing resource extraction claims, if any, are still allowed – but no new ones. National Monuments, created under the Antiquities Act, typically involve lands that have been determined to have unique and significant ecological and/or archaeological features, and generally go through an extensive public review process before approval for protection from future claims. They are lands under threat from those who would use them up for immediate, and generally, private, gain.
Yet, it’s often the case that once designated, these special places are then “discovered”, so to speak, by people all over the world, who then become enamored with their unique features and visit them, spending their tourist dollars locally. Even with the limited protected status of national monuments, a permanent conservation benefit is realized over the narrow, the temporary and the destructive. Eventually, many monuments are turned into National Parks with their greater protections. This is great for local economies (see also Opinion: National monuments threatened by Trump drive millions of private sector jobs).
Case in point: the Alaska Kenai Fjords National Park. When it was first proposed as a monument, the local residents of Seward and other communities, in typical knee-jerk fashion, were immediately opposed. They hollered and railed about the “big government takeover”, calling the designations “illegal, immoral and in violation of the basic human rights of American citizens.” says Timo Christopher Allan in his book Locked Up!: A History of Resistance to the Creation of National Parks in Alaska. They burned President Carter in effigy, and threatened with death anyone from the government who showed up to try to reason with them.
In Ken Burns video series, The National Parks: Americas Best Idea, Seward Alaska resident Bev Dunham is seen as one of those outraged citizens declaiming before the local City Council back then. “I was fearful.” she said years later, “I thought the same things that most people did, that it was going to harm us”. But Dunham’s verdict turned out to be premature.
“A national park, with all the development restrictions it would bring, appeared to many in Seward as a major economic barrier. However, the park soon caused a tourism boom that prompted the city council to rescind its anti-park resolution in 1985. During the next five years, park visitation doubled and tour boats and hotels in Seward were full all summer long. Soon, as Tom Kizzia with the Anchorage Daily News observed, it was ‘hard to find anyone in the bustling little town with a bad word for the federal bureaucrats they once maligned’”, quotes Allan. It all changed when the residents began to hear the “music of ringing cash registers”.
“As the tourist economy in Seward began to emerge as a crucial part of the town’s livelihood, the city council, quietly, but officially, rescinded its two previous resolutions denouncing the park idea. Several years after that, they asked that the national park at their doorstep be expanded”, says The National Parks: Americas Best Idea. Once very opposed, Bev Dunham then became an advocate. “I think it’s great”, she says, “It’s done a lot for Seward. As far as tourism is concerned, it is made a vast difference… it is proven that it [protected status] hasn’t hurt anything. If anything, it’s enhanced it.”
The benefits of protected status is not just in Alaska either. “Kristina Waggoner, vice president of the Boulder-Escalante Chamber of Commerce in Utah, said business near the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in southern Utah is booming, driven by sharp increases in tourism since the area was designated in 1996 by President Bill Clinton”, according to an article in PBS News Hour. “I’m here today to support the monument and my 3-year-old son,” Waggoner said. “Once our land is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has reopened these monuments for public comments before taking action. Beginning tomorrow, May 12, but only for a limited time, you can submit your thoughts online. If you care about preserving our public lands, please show your support.
It’s a pity that to some people, for a unique or beautiful piece of land to be considered worthy of saving, it needs to prove a boon to the economy. May the day come when we recognize the need to preserve these special places, not just for their strict economic benefit (which, in actuality, shouldn’t figure into the equation at all), or even for their transcendent psychological and spiritual significance to humans, vital though that is to us, but, above all, for their critical ecological importance to the many, many other animal species that call them home, and to the environment as a whole. Without them we are nowhere.
If anything, with our swelling human population, we need to expand, not reduce, our protected lands.