Update on Public Lands

A year ago this week, War was declared on America’s lands when President Trump signed Executive Order 13792.  This unprecedented action put 26 National Monuments on the chopping block for review and possible reduction in size.  The President had already appointed Ryan Zinke as Interior Department Secretary, and he became the point person for carrying out the executive order.  Over the past year, Secretary Zinke has expanded the war on numerous fronts through his political appointments, his department re-organization fumbling, his shunning of wildlife management and sound science and his devotion to energy conglomerates and large-scale agriculture.

And we haven’t even mentioned the Secretary’s  personal ethical challenges and his oversized ego.  Try this on for size: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2018/03/19/6ba3b4e4-2bba-11e8-8ad6-fbc50284fce8_story.html?utm_term=.bfa3c8c3bb31.

The principal “party line” for executing the executive order was that past presidents named these national monuments without public input: an Interior press release justifying the Order stated:Secretary Zinke and President Trump both strongly believe that local input is a critical component of federal land management.”

And there was more about how important the public is: “The Department of the Interior is the steward of America’s greatest treasures and the manager of one-fifth of our land. Part of being a good steward is being a good neighbor and listening to the American people who we represent,” said Secretary Zinke. “Today’s action, initiating a formal public comment process finally gives a voice to local communities and states when it comes to Antiquities Act monument designations."

So for 60 days, local communities, outdoor businesses and citizens responded, and at the end of the day there were almost 3 million comments and over 99% opposed changing any of the National Monument boundaries.  National Parks and Monuments are often called “America’s Best Idea”, and almost unanimously millions of Americans from across the nation agreed.

Although Zinke and his closest political aides had no doubt intended to make large rollbacks in most if not all of the 26 monuments, the only opening they saw to take action was in Utah where some of that state’s federal and state officials were marching to a different drum than the vast majority (time will tell at the ballot box whether Utah voters were in lockstep with those officials).  Large parts of Grand Escalante and Bears Ears Monuments were named for development by Interior, but lawsuits closely followed alleging the executive order and the reductions in Utah are against the law.

And thanks to recent Freedom of Information requests, we now know the real motivation for the ill-fated executive order – internal documents confirm the potential for oil, gas and uranium development within the monument borders was paramount (as if we didn’t intuitively know before!).

Americans want to be a part of these lands that belong to them, and after the beauty and amazing geology of the Utah monuments received glowing reviews in numerous articles last year, thousands more Americans are now vacationing in Utah to see Escalante and Bears Ears.

Meanwhile, the executive order was the first volley in a war that continues on numerous fronts led by Zinke and his newly-appointed Interior officials who are fresh from lobbying and lawyering for fossil fuel, petrochemical and mining interests.  Conflict of interest is a forgotten prohibition these days.  Meanwhile, a majority of Congress simply provides a nod and a blink during committee hearings when these matters are raised.  For more details check out this from the Wilderness Society: https://wilderness.org/zinke-year-one-14-misdeeds-show-why-hes-worst-interior-secretary-ever.

This War pits lots of money and generals against an overwhelming super-majority of citizens.  It’s David vs. Goliath, and I believe from the bottom of my heart that David will be victorious.   

The good news is Americans now realize they can’t take their own public outdoor experiences for granted any longer.  More and more folks in South Carolina and around the nation are seeking out public lands for inspiration, refuge, health and pure enjoyment in U.S. parks, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges.  Can you believe that over 2% of the entire US economy is from the out-of-doors?  And guess what – that figure is larger than the entire US mining industry and it’s growing by leaps and bounds!

We will continue to keep you posted.

Ben Gregg, SCWF Executive Director