Opinion

Trump smashes a national treasure

Nothing says "Republican Party" more than destroying national monuments for private profit

I grew up in remote rural Utah, near Capitol Reef National Park, and was raised by a couple of river guides. I spent much of my childhood in the back seat of an Isuzu Trooper, exploring the spectacular canyon country of southern Utah and Arizona. I was unsurprisingly strongly in favor of President Obama's executive action designating the Bears Ears National Monument not far from my hometown — and a big fan of President Clinton's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I've personally driven, camped, and hiked all over the region, and I can say confidently that it's one of the most beautiful and precious places that exists in the world.

So I suppose it's no surprise that President Trump is taking a jackhammer to both places, in the greatest reduction in public land protection in American history — all for the highly probable benefit of ranchers, oil drillers, and coal miners. It's akin to giving the Sistine Chapel to Eric Trump so he can sell off the frescoes in hacked-off chunks.

Various environmentalist groups have filed suit to block the move, but Trump might well prevail in court. The Antiquities Act is broadly worded, and grants the president sweeping power to declare national monuments. Presidents Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson both previously shrunk monuments, so there's a precedent as well.

However, shrinking is not all Trump is doing here. For the Bears Ears National Monument, he would cut it into two pieces 85 percent smaller than its current size: the Shash Jaa National Monument, and the Indian Creek National Monument. This would leave out the Dark Canyon Wilderness and Cedar Mesa, both packed with American Indian relics like the Doll House and Moon House ruins.

Protecting those ancient ruins and artifacts was one major reason the Obama administration created the monument in the first place, while Trump's executive order directing the review instructs the Interior Department to examine whether the monuments "create barriers to energy independence." The meaning of that is clear enough — as are the people who have been lobbying for the rollback: mainly farmers, ranchers, and oil drillers (and, likely as not, grave robbers in nearby Blanding).

For the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Trump would cut it into three different monuments: the Kaiparowitz, Grand Staircase, and Escalante Canyons National Monuments. The first two would lop off significant sections of the currently protected portions of the named geological features. Grand Staircase would lose a significant chunk of the Skutumpah Terrace and the Table Cliffs near Cannonville, while the Kaiparowitz Plateau — which is incidentally chock full of dinosaur fossils — would lose a significant portion of its central and southern region.

Why? As this map from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance shows, the new monuments open up the bulk of the coal deposits in the old monument around Cannonville, Escalante, and the southern Kaiparowitz. Preventing those deposits from being exploited — and thereby doing untold damage to the local environment — was the major justification of President Clinton when he designated the monument.

Cutting down these monuments because they have some ancillary land that doesn't really have much to do with the main feature would be one thing. But cutting them down specifically so Bundy Ranch types can run their hooved locusts on them at vast public subsidy, or so coal and oil companies can rip them apart for profit — in the process poisoning the water and atmosphere, destroying priceless ancient artifacts, and spewing out millions of tons of greenhouse gases — is quite another. It would be effectively deleting the national monument as intended — and no president has ever done that. That sort of argument might just have a better shot in court.

It's also worth noting that resource extraction in such a beautiful place is a poisoned chalice even in narrow economic terms. There might be a brief windfall from oil drilling, but it won't last long, and bust will leave lasting damage after it runs out. Coal mining is so uneconomical these days that even with the massive subsidies Trump is directing to the industry, the Kaiparowitz development might not be economical, especially given its extremely remote location. Preserving the wilderness in its intact state, by contrast, can give local communities a potential tourism resource that won't ever be exhausted.

At any rate, who knows where this will end up in the courts. The major lesson here is the same one we learned from the tax bill recently passed by the Senate: Whatever you love or need the most in your life, sooner or later, President Trump and the Republican Party are going to try to take it from you and give it to rich people. There is no limit to the things they will ruin.

The only solution is to vote them out of office. Hopefully we can accomplish that before Trump builds a gigantic Trump-themed hotel complex in the middle of the Grand Canyon.

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