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Trump's monumental mistake in Utah


University of Virginia


Trump's monumental mistake in Utah

Searching for a pause button

Coke Matthews


President Trump recently signed two proclamations that drastically reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, and as you can imagine, has sparked another heated debate. The decision to shrink the national monuments is the first such reduction in decades, and the two million acres is by far the largest cut back of federally protected land in American history. To get a sense of the scale of the tract of land involved, Virginia has approximately 25 million total acres. To give a brief history, President Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante as a national monument in 1996, and President Obama labeled Bears Ears as such in the waning days of his presidency in 2016. There were fiery debates for and against these measures at their creation, and Trump’s reversal has reignited the debates.

The main constitutional debate focuses on the interpretation of the second section of the Antiquities Act, which reads:

"That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures... the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected”

It is important to note that only Congress can set aside national parks (which have never been reduced), while the President can create national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Trump claims that past administrations, or Democrats as he would say, have severely abused the Act (especially the smallest area clause), and that the federal government has unfairly locked up hundreds of millions of acres of resources. The president’s stance on this issue should not come as a surprise, however, as he has consistently pushed back against what he sees as federal overreach and excessive regulations. Utah’s politicians and many locals agree with Trump, as they see the “land grab” as another attempt by Washington bureaucrats to control their way of life and restrict their economy. But the arguments are more than just philosophical debates about the authority of the federal government. Their more practical argument is that removing federal protection will make the land available for mining, fracking, and other commercial developments that will create local jobs and economic growth and tapping our own resources lessens our dependency on foreign oil. This would make Trump’s decision very popular, at least to those who would benefit.

Native American tribes and conservationists, on the other hand, beg to differ. The Navajo nation, along with other indigenous tribes, have vowed to challenge the decision in court. Even Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia, was outspoken in criticism for the reduction, and has also promised to sue Trump in response. If you take a quick visit to the Patagonia website, you will find white words on a black background with the words “The President Stole Your Land.” Familiar outdoor retailers such as North Face and Arc’teryx have also donated towards the monuments in opposition of Trump’s decision.

The reasons for such vocal resistance are clear. In his press conference, Trump did not mention Native Americans and whether his decision was affected at all by their concerns. Local tribes are horrified by the decree, since it places their ancestral homeland, archaeological sites, and natural resources at risk. By privatizing and selling the land, industrial expansion and short-term monetary profits are given priority over the environment and our obligation to preserve our country’s natural beauty for the next generation. As Patagonia puts it, “climbers, hikers, hunters and anglers all agree that public lands are a critical part of our national heritage and these lands belong not just to us, but to future generations.”

That’s the profound part. Not just for the Native Americans. For everyone. There is a reason our national parks and monuments are often crowded. We cherish them. They connect us to the places that have inspired our ancestors and their ancestors. Thus, commercializing these lands would destroy a powerful link to the past.

To be candid, I was motivated to write this piece because I was inflamed by the headlines of Trump’s pillaging of Utah's hallowed grounds. After reading numerous articles on both sides, however, I realize that the arguments are at least more nuanced than I first thought. If I was a Native American, the protection of the site soothes my soul. But if I am an unemployed miner trying to provide for my family, I cannot wait to crank up the equipment. I don’t like the idea of bureaucrats in Washington making local decisions for my community either, but when I see a picture of this breathtaking land, I am terrified that my children, and their children, won't be able to see it for themselves. This issue deserves more than just a press conference and a wave before the presidential helicopter flies defiantly over the pristine land having checked off a campaign promise. After weighing the arguments more carefully, I still side with the conservationists. All I’m saying is, once the natural land is gone, there’s no getting it back.

Photos credit to The Washington Post, Carolyn Kaster via AP, Scott G Winterton of Deseret News, and James Marvin Phelps via Flickr