Writers on the Range: National monuments and a bogus review (Calvert)
Writers on the Range
I have been trying to find one good policy reason for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s willingness to go after national monuments, but there isn’t one.
At the behest of Donald Trump, Zinke, a pro-energy Montanan who speciously claims to be a conservationist, has undertaken an unprecedented review of national monuments dedicated under the Antiquities Act. He delivered his recommendations for shrinking a hit list of 27 monuments on Aug. 24. But his review is a sham, and so is the presidential directive that ordered it.
Here’s the reasoning the president gave in April for ordering the review: that monument designations can “create barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict public access to and use of federal lands, burden state, tribal, and local governments, and otherwise curtail economic growth.” None of this is true.
In terms of achieving energy independence, only a few monuments sit atop commercially recoverable hydrocarbon formations, and in most cases the lease-holders can continue to develop the energy deposits with or without a monument. That’s if they’re willing to do so: Prices for coal, oil, uranium and natural gas are low enough now that new drilling doesn’t always make financial sense. The most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency show petroleum plays around the Four Corners, throughout Wyoming, and into far eastern Montana. Of course, different well sites will produce different results, but few monuments sit atop extractive plays, and those that do overlap with them won’t make a difference.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S. is drilling, digging, sucking and pumping the heck out of the West already. Prices for natural gas, oil and coal are all relatively low, thanks to a glutted market. There is no energy-related reason to mess with monuments.
How about public access to land? Generally speaking, monuments allow a broad range of use and access. That includes hunting and fishing, careful grazing and logging, driving motorized vehicles on designated roads, and access to inholdings.
Expressly prohibited activities generally involve the sale or leasing of land for mining and other extractive use and the looting of artifacts. So Trump’s claim that monument status restricts public access is false.
Finally, there’s the notion that less protection brings more economic growth. This is easily disproven. An analysis of 17 national monuments by Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics shows that the counties around monuments all continued to prosper after monument designation. Around Arizona’s Ironwood Forest National Monument, which was designated in 2000 to protect the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, jobs and income have continued to grow.
From 2001 to 2015, in adjacent Pima County, real personal income grew 28 percent. Service jobs grew 25 percent, while non-service jobs decreased 21 percent, so the type of jobs changed, but overall economic health did not.
Across four Idaho counties adjacent to Craters of the Moon National Monument — which was originally designated by Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and then greatly expanded in 2000 — traditional jobs in agriculture, mining and timber held steady, even as per capita income went up 36 percent over the next 15 years after the expansion.
Across the board, similar changes and growth took place, and while it’s hard to nail down causality, not a single county in the analysis suffered economic decline after a monument designation. The president’s claim that monuments “curtail economic growth” is false.
So what’s behind the presidential order? Old-fashioned politics. Trump has no political experience and is easily lobbied. It seems that one of the best lobbyists when it comes to Trump and monuments is Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Hatch has been greatly offended by the “overbearing” designations of two monuments in his state — Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by Bill Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears, designated by Barack Obama at the end of his term, in December 2016.
In announcing the monument review, Trump credited Hatch for his efforts. “He doesn’t give up,” Trump said. “And he’s shocked that I’m doing it, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing.”
Trump said he was reviewing monuments — going back to the arbitrary date of 1996, the very year Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated — to “return control to the people, the people of Utah.” He signed the order and then gave Hatch the pen. Neither man appears to understand that the federal public land belongs to all Americans and not exclusively to the people of Utah.
This monument review is not about practical policy for energy, or access, or economics. The review is transparent pandering to Trump’s political allies and a cheap thrill for his Obama-hating base.
What more would you expect from Trump, who prefers golf courses to grand vistas? Zinke, though, as a Westerner, should know better.
Brian Calvert is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editor-in-chief of the magazine.
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