Commentary: Donald Trump has further sealed his legacy as the worst president for the environment in American history.
With an Executive Order ordering the review of 24 national monuments, issued just four days after Earth Day and 96 days into his administration, Trump has placed in jeopardy more than a billion acres —“billion” with a B — of protected natural, cultural, and historic landscapes and marine areas. That’s an area larger than the states of Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana combined.
Ignoring overwhelming public support for protecting and expanding national monuments, Trump’s Executive Order directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to ‘review” the feasibility of disbanding national monuments larger than 100,000 acres designated by previous Presidents back through 1996.
In California, that includes the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, along with the Carrizo Plain, Berryessa Snow Mountain, Giant Sequoia, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow national monuments. The list also includes the Basin and Range and Gold Butte national monuments in Nevada, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah, Grand Canyon Parashant, Vermilion Cliffs, Ironwood Forest, and Sonoran Desert national monuments in Arizona, and others — including 744,000 square nautical miles of protected marine areas in the Pacific.
By threatening our national monuments, Trump is playing to his base. Not the white working class type Americans who are said to have voted for him, mind: Americans of all demographics tend to support national monuments. No, Trump is playing to his real base here: a small minority of ideological zealots who resent the 1906 Antiquities Act that enables Presidents to designate National Monuments.
Call ‘em the Cliven Bundy Bunch, after the government-subsidized Nevada rancher who decided his sweetheart deal grazing fees were too high, and started stealing public resources for his own private profit. The Bundys of the world in grazing, mining, fossil fuels and other extractive industries have been calling for a frontal assault on the Antiquities Act for some time. Despite having made significant inroads into Utah’s federal and state legislative delegations, the Bundy Bunch remain far out of step with the majority of Americans — and even the majority of Utahns.
In a nod to that ideological splinter as he signed the Executive Order, Trump referred to national monument designations under the Antiquities Act as a “massive federal land grab,” adding that the designations “unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control.” That’s a notion straight out of the Bundy playbook, and it’s a lie: every acre of the land and water designated as national monuments under the Antiquities Act since 1996 was already federally owned.
Though its opponents characterize the Antiquities Act as an autocratic way for Presidents to lock up land with a stroke of a pen, with no legislative oversight, the Act has become an ironic way for democracy to do an end-run around an intransigent Congress to get land protected. If enough people decide a place warrants protection as a National Monument, it can be a lot easier to appeal to the conscience — or the ego — of the person in the Oval Office than it is to get a bill corporations oppose through a deadlocked Congress. When the entrenched opposition of a wealthy minority threatens to thwart the public’s desire to protect our most valuable places, the Antiquities Act offers democracy a workaround.
Take the recently designated monuments in the California desert as examples. The Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow national monuments in San Bernardino and Riverside counties were established via the Antiquities Act as a last resort. A groundswell movement had worked to get a bill through Congress for a decade, aided mightily by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Local opposition to the monuments dwindled as advocates persuaded their neighbors of the benefits the monuments would bring. By the time advocates decided there was no point in trying for Congressional approval of the idea, a number of small desert communities had formally endorsed the monuments. And now? Local pride in the new monuments is palpable. The tiny roadside town of Morongo Valley boasts a locally crafted sign welcoming travelers to the Sand to Snow National Monument, and a local bar has renamed itself after the monument as well. Now, two of the three — Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow — are subject to Trump's arbitrary "review."
Trump’s Executive Order, which may well lead to protections on millions of acres being reduced or eliminated, is a profoundly antidemocratic move.
Whether the monuments at issue are reduced in size, stripped of National Monument protection, or eventually privatized or devolved to the states, Wednesday’s Executive Order stands among the most anti-environmental single acts ever. The best case scenario is that Trump has opened up the Interior Department to dozens of ruinously expensive lawsuits, as advocates of each monument try to protect their beloved sanctuaries in court.
To be clear, it’s unlikely Trump has the legal authority to rescind designation of a National Monument. That power has historically been relegated to Congress, which hasn’t used it much lately. As we have seen with several other executive orders in recent weeks, the current occupant of the White House apparently doesn’t ask an attorney to vet his proclamations for trivial matters like whether or not they're legal. Trump seems to operate on the assumption that if he wants something bad enough, minor details like law and the Constitution shouldn’t get in the way. It may be that this Executive Order will skid to a litigated halt much as his Muslim ban and sanctuary cities orders have done.
But if monument advocates lose in court, beloved and irreplaceable places from Utah’s Escalante to the coral reefs of the Northwest Hawai’ian Islands could be forever despoiled by extractive industry ranging from oil and gas fracking to industrial fishing bottom-trawl nets.
Even taken in the context of the rest of Trump’s other “achievements” in the environmental realm — appointing EPA foe Scott Pruitt to head that agency, putting climate change denialist Rick Perry in charge of the DoE, fast-tracking destructive projects on public lands across the country — Trump’s assault on the 1906 Antiquities Act is a startlingly brazen signal that American environmental values mean nothing to him.
The notion of ransacking national monuments didn’t start with Trump. There have always been Americans who look covetously at the resources protected in our national parks and monuments. One example in particular is particularly relevant to Trump’s assault on our shared natural and cultural heritage.
That example: a 320-acre patch of the southern Black Hills near Edgemont, South Dakota that was once designated as Fossil Cycad National Monument. The land there was once littered with the fossilized trunks, leaves, and flowers of trees now called cycadeoids, extinct relatives of present-day cycads, ginkgos and conifers. In 1920, paleontologist George Reber Wieland homesteaded the land to keep the fossils out of others’ hands. In 1922 President Warren Harding accepted Wieland’s fossil-studded homestead on behalf of the National Park Service, designating it as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act.
In 1957, Fossil Cycad National Monument was formally abolished. Vandals and thieves had stripped the Monument of all its above-ground fossils, and the Park Service saw no reason to continue to protect the site. Part of the problem was that there were no on-site rangers at Fossil Cycad to watch over things: the closest National Park Service office was at Wind Cave, 25 miles away — at least an hour’s drive in those days. The Park Service didn’t even start regular visits to Fossil Cycad for more than a decade after its establishment.
And part of the reason was apparently Wieland himself: many of the fossils from the Monument ended up, one way or another, in his museum at Yale. Wieland responded angrily when it was suggested he had stolen the fossils, though it seems in retrospect that he simply felt the rules didn’t apply to him.
In 1956, at the Park Service’s request Congress voted to deauthorize Fossil Cycad National Monument and hand the land over to the Bureau of Land Management. That law became effective on September 1, 1957. That day, nearly 60 years ago was the last time a National Monument was decommissioned, though many have been upgraded to National Parks since.
Fossil Cycad was abolished because the resources it was supposed to protect were ransacked. Sixty years later, Donald Trump would do things the other way around: decommission the national monuments and then let people ransack their resources to their own ends. The recent designation of Bears Ears National Monument, for instance, was intended to help stop private theft of cultural artifacts, much to the chagrin of those Utah lawmakers. And that pales before the ransacking corporate industry has in mind.
Fossil Cycad National Monument, in other words, offers an important lesson for those of us who value our parks and monuments. Unless we defend those monuments diligently, they’ll end up being ransacked by someone who thinks the rules don’t apply to him.
Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink.
Banner: Vermilion Cliffs National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM