The following is the official public comment I left on the Department of the Interior’s Review of National Monuments. It is presented here as an Editorial.
All images included in this post are from Monuments that are under review by the Department of the Interior.
Register your own public comment at the Department of the Interior web portal. Comments relating to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante must be received before May 26, 2017. All other comments must be received before July 10, 2017.
To Whom It May Concern:
Over the past ten years I have written extensively about hiking throughout the West. In 2006, I founded the web site Modern Hiker (modernhiker.com), one of the earliest hiking blogs and currently the most-read hiking blog in the American West. Here, I have had the pleasure of documenting trails and experiences in many of the Monuments under review, including Sonoran Desert, Carrizo Plain, Giant Sequoia, Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, San Gabriel Mountains, Cascade Siskiyou, Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante. In addition to ‘boots on the ground’ experience in these places, I have also reported extensively on the process behind the creation of the San Gabriel Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails National Monuments as well as the history of the Antiquities Act and public lands in the United States. It is my opinion that this ‘review’ of Monuments declared by the Antiquities Act is a disingenuous ploy that will at best result in a series of massive lawsuits against the Government of the United States that will cost American taxpayers millions of dollars, and at worst will result in the unraveling and subversion of a law that has been used by insightful and foresighted Presidents of both parties throughout its 110-year history to protect unique landscapes and cultural sites for the future of all Americans. I strongly urge the Secretary of the Interior to reject all efforts to reduce or eliminate these or any existing National Monuments.
First, the supposition that communities did not have adequate outreach or input in these Monuments is demonstrably false. Here in Southern California, I was privy to and reported on the San Gabriel Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails National Monument processes. All three had years – and sometimes decades-long lead-ups, where local grassroots organizations worked together to petition their elected representatives for legislation to establish Monuments or National Recreation Areas. These groups did hard work and approached interested parties from all regions and all opinions, and worked with their legislators to tweak proposals to ensure the maximum amount of inclusivity. They held public meetings. They commissioned studies. They made their cases and convinced skeptics. In all instances, these legislative efforts were met with silence in the halls of Congress – despite overwhelming and broad support from constituents in the region. It was only then that supporters had to invoke the Antiquities Act.
Even after these Monuments were declared legally via the powers vested in the President by the Antiquities Act, the same stakeholders who had years to engage in the process continued to have ample opportunities for input in the land management process. In the San Gabriel Mountains, that process is still ongoing, and the Forest Service managing the Monument is still tallying the hundreds of public comments on their initial draft of the management plan, which will then go into yet another revision to ensure the people who use this area are heard. The primary premise behind this ‘review,’ then is insincere. And if it weren’t, how could a two-month period (or in the case of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two weeks) possibly be ample time for the Department of the Interior to fully review 27 Monuments when in reality each individual Monument has had years or even decades of review that has already been done?
Somehow, the idea that Monuments are the same thing as Wilderness designations has taken root in the opponents of National Monuments. I myself have had several conversations with people who – even years after a Monument has been declared – are under the misconception that they inherently bring the harshest and most strict set of land use regulations. This is not the case – nor should it ever be the default setting for new Monuments. In the San Gabriel Mountains, people can still enjoy their shooting ranges and hunting seasons. In Mojave Trails, off-roaders can still use trails designed with them in mind. In Bears Ears, ranchers can still graze cattle. During my years of reporting on this process, I was surprised at just how inclusive it is, and how inherently democratic it is. Although the extremely vocal anti-public land delegation from Utah would have you believe a National Monument by Presidential decree is an abuse of authority from a distant executive, it is in fact an Executive listening to the desires of local constituents and acting with foresight to bypass the slow-moving churn of the legislative branch.
The vast majority of legal scholars and historians are in agreement that the language of the Antiquities Act gives the President the authority to protect and preserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest,” but does not give the President the authority to undo or alter existing Monuments by decree. Those alterations must be done through Congress. In addition, over the past century courts have strengthened and expanded what, exactly, those “objects” constitute – from individual colonies of plants or animals to watersheds to visual landscapes to entire ecosystems. Courts have also established time and time again that the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected” is essentially at the discretion of the President making the decree based on the best available science. If the Secretary recommends alterations to these or any other Monuments or the President attempts to alter them by decree or executive order, you can rest assured legal challenges will be filed almost instantaneously. Does the Department of the Interior really wish to waste resources on those pointless battles, or does it wish to use them to protect America’s public lands in a way that makes sense?
Based on the words and actions of the President, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Utah delegation, the motivations behind this ‘review’ seem to be based not in following any law or guideline, but rather a not-very-well-concealed ulterior motive to give up America’s public lands to destructive, extractive industries, thereby forfeiting the long-term, broadly distributed benefits allotted to generations of the American public (in environmental, recreational, and financial terms) for short-term profit for a select few. These Monuments are ancestral homes. They are places of spiritual worship. They are the cradles of American heritage. They are places where hikers, hunters, anglers, cyclists, tourists, off-roaders, family campers, backpackers, historians, and indigenous peoples can shed partisan identities and enjoy shared spaces together. And they are absolutely, unequivocally irreplaceable.
The author and historian Wallace Stegner once wrote that our innovative collection of public lands was “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” This review and the legally flimsy attack on the Antiquities Act is a tremendous step in the wrong direction, ignoring over a hundred years of bipartisan American values. It would be extremely un-American and exceptionally wrong-headed.
In fact, even where Monument designations have met strong resistance in the past, over time the communities overwhelmingly come to see them not as a burden, but a boon. Recent polls of Utahns near Grand Staircase-Escalante found locals favor the Monument by a 2:1 margin, and 62% of Utahns believe the Monument to be an economic benefit to the region. Secretary Zinke may be familiar with the story of Wyoming’s Governor Cliff Hansen, who in his younger days participated in an illegal cattle drive to protest an expansion of Jackson Hole National Monument in the 1940s that would connect it with Grand Teton National Park. In 1967, he said “I want you all to know that I’m glad I lost, because now I know I was wrong. Grand Teton National Park is one of the greatest natural heritages of Wyoming and the nation and one of our great assets.”
Or, perhaps Secretary Zinke is more familiar with a speech from his outdoor role model Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1910 said “I believe the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few … people forget now that one hundred years ago there were public men of good character who advocated the nation selling its public lands in great quantities, so that the nation could get the most money out of it.” And later, in the same speech, “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” 
Perhaps, instead of giving up on their mission to preserve and protect America’s public lands for future generations of Americans, the Secretary and the President can work on finding ways to ensure those tasked with being stewards and wardens of our shared heritage and lands have the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.
I join the loud and strong chorus of my fellow Americans in urging the Secretary and the Department of the Interior to reject any attempt to reduce the size or scope of any existing National Monument, now and forever.
Founder and Editor in Chief
Editorial Posts reflect the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the staff or writers of Modern Hiker, LLC.
Featured image Ironwood Forest National Monument. Photo by $1LENCE_D00600D used by Creative Commons license.