Is America’s ‘Best Idea’ at Stake?

Republicans and the Trump administration are trying to reduce the number of national monuments, which would put once-protected land up for commercial use.

Bears Ears National Monument
President Trump reportedly said that he will try to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, pictured here in December 2016. (Annie Knox / Reuters)

Since President Trump assumed office, the government has taken what some historians are calling an “unprecedented” approach to the protection of U.S. land. This summer, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reviewed and suggested modifying 10 national monuments; Trump reportedly said that he planned to shrink at least two, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante; a House bill was introduced that would limit the president’s power to protect land; and a Senate budget resolution could open a wildlife refuge to drilling.

To some degree, the administration’s actions fall in line with the conservative stance on the protection of land—conservatives generally argue for increased deregulation and economic development of land, while liberals call for wilderness preservation. But never before has the country seen an administration, coupled with a Republican-controlled Congress, that is so clearly intent on rolling back existing land protections.

It’s difficult to imagine what the United States would be like without federally protected land—without Mount Rushmore, or Yellowstone, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But 120 years ago, such was the case: The government played a negligible role in protecting and managing its resources. The Industrial Revolution was just taking off; loggers, miners, and settlers were reaping the benefits of a complete lack of regulations, and consuming resources at inconceivable rates. Lawmakers in Washington, meanwhile, were focused on matters like immigration and monetary policy.

It was in this arena that John Muir, a conservationist who would help to fundamentally shift the the way the country thought about its land, wrote these words in The Atlantic’s 1897 August issue: “Notwithstanding all the waste and use which have been going on unchecked like a storm for more than two centuries, it is not yet too late, though it is high time, for the government to begin a rational administration of its forests.”

It was this vision—expanded to include not only America’s forests, but also her mountains and canyons, plains and oceans—that would come to be recognized as the country’s “best idea.” In Presidents and the American Environment, historian Otis Graham writes that by the late 1800s, widely-circulated articles like Muir’s had brought the issue into public consciousness. Sportsmen, too, were alarmed by the marked decline in certain species due to over-hunting and deforestation, and pushed for natural-resource regulation. Congress, “intermittently unhappy with the situation on the public lands,” began taking into account complaints from these small, elite groups—conservationists, hunters, and scientifically-minded bureaucrats alike.

When Theodore Roosevelt, a naturalist and hunter who was also friends with Muir, assumed the presidency in 1901, he made land protection a priority. The convergence of increasing public awareness and governmental concern spurred a “social and political mobilization,” according to Graham.

The Antiquities Act, signed by Roosevelt in 1906, was the clearest example of this shift: It gave presidents the power to protect land by declaring national monuments. The act was brief, specifying that the sites need only be “objects of historic and scientific interest” to warrant protection. Over time, government-owned land became an intrinsic part of American life—a reflection of the country’s principles. “The parks do not belong to one state or to one section,” said Stephen Tyng Mather, who served as the first director of the National Park Service from 1917 to 1929. “They have been democratized.”

Today, over 630 million acres of U.S. land are protected through various designations. Last year, nearly 331 million people—more than the country’s entire population—visited national parks.

Still, land preservation has been a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats for years, from William Howard Taft’s quiet revision of some of Roosevelt’s monuments to a drawn-out battle surrounding Grand Teton National Park. Michael Kraft, co-author of Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, said that Republicans are generally less supportive of “protecting large swaths of land” because of economic interests and what they see as an “abuse of power” by some presidents. “But the prevailing pattern is that presidents of both parties have [made designations],” he said.

Indeed, save for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, every president since Roosevelt has declared national monuments; Congress, under constitutional power, has protected millions of acres more through national-park or wilderness-preserve designations. No president has succeeded in eliminating a designation made by a predecessor.

It was Jimmy Carter’s presidency, though, that ushered in our “modern era of environmental policy,” according to historian Pete Andrews—one in which land protection became an overtly partisan issue. Carter’s push to protect land in Alaska toward the end of his term in 1980 sparked backlash from Republicans—most notably, his successor Ronald Reagan.

Congress had been debating how to manage land in Alaska since its inception as a state in 1958. During his campaign, Carter listed preserving wilderness in Alaska as one of his initiatives—a move that conservationists heralded but Alaskan businessmen saw as an economic disaster, given that oil and gas production at the time was the largest source of unrestricted revenue for the state. In 1978, faced with a Congress still unable to settle on a decision, Carter used his Antiquities Act power to protect 56 million acres of land there himself. The move prompted protest from Alaskan residents but pushed lawmakers to strike a compromise.

In the last days of Carter’s tenure, a lame-duck Congress finally passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to reconcile conservationists’ demands and an impending Republican president. In the end, 104 million acres (some of which a Senate Energy panel recently voted to open to drilling) were made into national parks, reserves, forests, or fish and wildlife preserves.

But Carter’s unilateral actions carried a legacy: He designated more land than any previous president in a single sweep, which caused many people to become aware of, and rail against, the potential uses of the Antiquities Act. Land protection turned into a tug-of-war between advocates of environmental interests versus economic ones, of regulation versus deregulation, and of big versus small government.

“You could say that Jimmy Carter was the first recent president to use the monument designation strategically in order to basically force Congress to act, or to get around Congress,” said Norman Vig, co-author of Environmental Policy. “That was a big deal.”

When Reagan first assumed office, he was expected to dismantle many of Carter’s regulations—not unlike what Trump has done to many of Obama’s policies. Reagan’s first secretary of the interior, James Watt, who’s regarded as one of the most conservative leaders the department has seen, believed that expanding offshore drilling and oil exploration in wilderness reserves would be economically beneficial for the government. Zinke has posed a similar argument.

Following in Carter’s footsteps, Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama exercised their land-protection power extensively. Obama established or enlarged 27 monuments, more than any president, and in turn drew biting criticism from Republicans.

One of Obama’s most controversial designations was Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. As my colleague Robinson Meyer reported, while locals and environmentalists agreed that much of Bears Ears should be protected, Republicans wanted at least some of the area freed up for potential commercial use or natural-gas extraction. Republicans saw the designation as an example of federal overreach.

“It’s the intrusiveness of the federal government that is unrelenting,” Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and a long-time critic of the Antiquities Act, told my colleague Michelle Cottle. This past October, Bishop’s committee marked up and approved an Antiquities Act-reform bill that would require additional review before presidents make designations, and would give them power to reduce existing monuments through the same process.

No other president has revoked a previous designation, so its legality remains in question: While the Antiquities Act grants presidents the power to declare national monuments, it does not stipulate anything about reductions or removals.

Zinke’s recommendations, according to historians I spoke with, are reminiscent of the Reagan administration. “This is certainly the most aggressive effort to open public lands since James Watt, without question,” Vig said. But while Reagan and Watt’s stance was notably conservative, Trump is the first president to take overt actions to reverse current policy.

The National Park Service defended Zinke’s work. “Secretary Zinke has taken a number of actions to ensure that national parks are protected and preserved in perpetuity by addressing the NPS maintenance backlog,” a spokesperson for the Park Service said in a statement.

If history serves as a blueprint, the future remains uncertain for Trump’s rollbacks. Ultimately, most of Reagan’s initiatives ended up failing. Watt resigned amidst extremely low approval ratings and a Democratic-majority Senate resolution to remove him. His ousting, coupled with criticism from Congress, forced Reagan to largely abandon his initial push for deregulation.

The Trump administration will also likely face its own set of challenges. Pending an official announcement by the White House expected in early December, several environmental groups have promised to bring lawsuits if any changes are made to Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was designated by Bill Clinton in 1996.

Back in 1897, Muir cited advances, from the increased protection of forests to the creation of “spacious parks in all the great cities,” as indicators of an “awakening of public opinion.” In a 2017 Western States survey, 80 percent of respondents said that existing national-monument designations for public lands should be kept in place.

Muir likely foresaw this. He ended his essay hopefully: “In the long run the world does not move backward.”