Opinion | Susan Knopf: Trump fails to grasp the value of wilderness (column)
It could be a scene from the Old West. The rumbling of horses’ hooves and the dust cloud coming over a nearby ridge. The townspeople see dozens of ruthless men with their guns drawn, stampeding the town main street shooting out every window and store front they see. And all the townspeople can do is run and hide because this band of marauders is just too strong and too powerful.
This could be what we all experience in the West, as President Trump’s executive order to review our country’s national monuments moves forward. The President has instructed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review any national monument created since Jan. 1, 1996, that spans at least 100,000 acres. The President maintains he wants to “end another egregious use of government power.” Trump is referring to the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law passed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was clearly the champion of preserving our natural environment and open space for future generations. The Antiquities Act allows a president to declare federal land a national monument and thus protect the historical, cultural or scientific value and overall national significance, and prevent anyone from abusing the designated area.
Every president since Roosevelt, with the exception of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has used the Antiquities Act to preserve national monuments. In 2015, President Obama designated Colorado’s Browns Canyon in the Arkansas River Valley as a national monument area under the Antiquities Act. He did the same near the end of his term last year for Bears Ears Buttes in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada, protecting these areas for the American people.
Browns Canyon is a very popular area covering over 21,000 acres down in Chaffee County, especially known for whitewater rafting, fishing and hiking. Designating it a national monument served to protect wildlife habitat. Senators Michael Bennett (D-CO), Mark Udall (D-CO) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) joined in support of the designation. But Republican Congressmen Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn were vocal against the president’s action because it could affect grazing, mineral and water rights. The White House chose to honor valid existing grazing and water rights, but not future mineral leasing. Groups like The Friends of the Browns Canyon celebrated and applauded the move by President Obama.
Bears Ears Buttes in Utah became a monument in December 2016. Covering almost 1.4 million acres of southeastern Utah in San Juan County. The designation withdraws areas of the monument from future oil and natural gas leasing. It also protects nearly 100,000 archeological and cultural sites. The proposal for designation was led by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian tribes that have ancestral ties to the land itself. For more information, check out the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Utah representatives, including Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) were appalled by the designation. In an interview shortly after the announcement with the Salt Lake City Tribune, Hatch said “The president’s proposal, like so many others, goes well beyond the original authorities of the Antiquities Act, which was intended to give presidents only limited power to designate special landmarks, such as a unique natural arch or the site of old cliff dwellings, in anticipation of broad support from Congress. The president was never meant to set aside millions of acres against the express wishes of local communities and their elected representatives.” Obviously Hatch wasn’t thinking about the Indian tribes, or any of the outdoor enthusiasts who have been pushing for this designation for years.
Hatch went on to say, “In the next Congress under President Trump, I will do everything in my power to reverse this travesty and send a strong message to future presidents that decisions made without local support will not be tolerated.” Other Utah officials including Governor Gary Herbert say they want the monument designation reversed. But it depends on who you talk to. Lots of their constituents claim these men represent moneyed interests and not voters.
Gold Butte National Monument, covers nearly 300,000 acres in the rugged desert area of southeastern Nevada. Supporters of the designation like Friends of the Nevada Wilderness, believe it will protect the resources of the area from unregulated activities. They say, “Permanent protection will help eliminate uncontrolled off-road vehicle use, which ravages sensitive soils and sensitive desert tortoise habitat. Irresponsible vehicle use, vandalism, theft and littering are destroying rock art sites and other pieces of Gold Butte’s priceless archaeological heritage.”
President Trump claims “The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time that we ended this abusive practice.” The president says he wants to “end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.” Really? What people is he referring to? Who does he want to give control of the land to? It’s already public land. Designating these areas as national monuments protects and preserves these areas for all of us and our future generations.
If you read between the lines, this executive order from the Trump administration is all about money. If you remove the protected designation from lands of 100,000 acres or more, you are opening up these public lands for oil and gas exploration and timber harvesting, just to name a few. And if that happens, it’s pretty clear these pristine landscapes will change forever. These industries will be that stampeding band of marauders on horseback ready to ride in with guns drawn. These industries have shown us they have little regard for the impact on the land, and only focus on making a buck and stripping what they can sell.
Now I’m not against progress, the creation of jobs or the improvement of our economy. But I don’t think we have to accomplish these things at the expense of preserving our nation’s wilderness. President Roosevelt had the vision to see that vast areas of our country needed to be preserved and protected for future generations. He valued the pristine natural places of this great country of ours. History has proven when given an opportunity, there are those who would rape our natural environment for personal gain and profit. It is clear, President Trump does not share the Roosevelt vision. He’s a deal maker, focused on a different set of priorities. The ones who stand to gain financially from reversing any national monument designation, are those who plan to exploit its natural resources. If President Trump decides to roll back any national monument designations, he will be the first president to do so in the history of the United States of America.
Jonathan Knopf is a 40-year veteran of broadcast journalism and a regular guest columnist for the Summit Daily. He is a resident of Silverthorne.
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