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What is Our Land For?

Photo source scott1346 | CC BY 2.0

The Trump administration accidentally released documents showing that they intentionally underestimated the value of national monuments while emphasizing the land’s value for logging, ranching, and energy development. Oopsie.

National monuments are federally protected lands that differ from national parks in a few important ways. Whereas only Congress can create a national park, the president can create a national monument with the stroke of a pen. Many national parks were national monuments first.

The Grand Canyon is an example. You might think the Grand Canyon would be among the most obvious slam dunk places to make a national park in the United States. Alas, it wasn’t.

Private interests initially prevented Congress from creating Grand Canyon National Park. President Teddy Roosevelt protected the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908, and it took Congress 11 more years to make it a park.

The Antiquities Act gives the president unilateral power to create national monuments, and Trump generally loves executive power of all kinds. However, in this case, he likes using his power to shrink existing national monuments.

The Trump administration recently reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Bears Ears in particular contains land sacred to Native Americans. The coal and oil industries were behind the decision to shrink the two monuments.

The newly — accidentally — released documents show that the Trump administration intentionally hid evidence that would bolster the case for leaving the monuments at their present size, such as tourism revenue and archaeological value.

At the heart of the matter, in addition to a story about a corrupt and inept government, is a conflict between Americans about the proper relationship between people and the land.

What is our land for? Should we graze it, log it, drill it, and mine it? Or should we preserve it, study it, recreate in it, and revere it?

Presumably, we need a happy medium of both.

Unless we find a way to run our economy without fossil fuels, or the entire nation goes vegan, or we stop using wood and paper, we can’t curtail all drilling, grazing, and logging. And obviously America isn’t going vegan, no matter how much certain animal rights groups think we should.

Whatever one’s opinion of extractive industries, they’re the basis for the economy and the way of life in much of the Old West. It’s a way of life that’s rugged and difficult and, increasingly, threatened by a trend of rural gentrification.

On the other hand, nature has intrinsic value. The beauty of our wild lands forms part of our identity as Americans and enhances quality of life. Intact ecosystems contribute to clean air and water, which we all need. And desecrating the sacred land of Native Americans is morally repugnant.

Additionally, tourism to national monuments pumps dollars into the economy and creates jobs.

Both land uses provide jobs and other benefits. Each is valued by a different group of people.

The Trump administration doesn’t appear interested in any sort of reasoned discussion that recognizes the merit of each side. This only serves to anger and entrench each side in the conflict instead of working toward compromise.

Perhaps someday we can find a solution that provides economic prosperity in America’s rural areas but doesn’t destroy the land in the process. Unfortunately, it won’t be while Trump’s in office.

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Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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