Is Congress about to wreck America’s natural treasures?

Is Congress about to wreck America's natural treasures?

October 27, 2017 | More from Vacation | Tags: ,

Is Congress about to wreck America’s natural treasures?

The Antiquities Act has been used to preserve some of the most beloved US lands and landmarks but it is facing assault from Trump and Congress

One-hundred-eleven years and a few months ago, Theodore Roosevelt signed the landmark law that helped cement his place as Americas conservation president.

The Antiquities Act is brief just two sentences allow a president to set aside for federal protection objects of historic or scientific interest.

Its been used dozens of times by 16 presidents from both parties to preserve some of Americas most beloved wild lands and historic landmarks, laying the foundations for national parks and generations of family adventures. Many national parks including South Dakotas Badlands, Alaskas Kenai Fjords and Death Valley in California and Nevada began as national monuments.

Those lands are now facing a two-headed assault from Congress and the Trump administration, and the act itself faces an uncertain future.

Within a few months of signing the Antiquities Act, Roosevelt chose the countrys first national monument a hulking 1,267ft-tall butte that towers above the forests of eastern Wyoming. In his proclamation on 24 September 1906, Roosevelt called Devils Tower such an extraordinary example of the effect of erosion in the higher mountains as to be a natural wonder.

Theres nothing like it in the world. Protecting it was crucial

Sunrise over Bryce Canyon. Photograph: Nick Jackson/REX Shutterstock

Jeff Muratore, an avid outdoorsman from Casper, Wyoming, hunts in the shadow of Devils Tower.

Growing up in Wyoming and hunting the Black Hills, its familiar from many of the mountains around, he says. I think its important that its been protected because of how unique it is. Theres nothing like it in the world. Protecting it was crucial.

If a bill quietly working its way through the House of Representatives right now were law 111 years ago, Devils Tower wouldnt have qualified as a national monument. Neither would the Grand Canyon, which Roosevelt protected as a monument in 1908 before it was made a national park. Nor would the Petrified Forest national park, Utahs Zion national park, Bryce Canyon or many of Americas other legendary protected lands.

For Greg Munther, a retired forest ranger and biologist in Missoula, Montana, the national landmark closest to his heart is a the Upper Missouri River Breaks, a nearly 500,000-acre stretch of wild and scenic river in north-central Montana.

Munther first visited the spot about 40 years ago and was awestruck. It was just mind-blowing, he said.

You dont see intrusions, you dont see modern life. When you are in there and you think about the history, and its still intact. Its just like it was when Lewis and Clark took their boats up.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks wouldnt qualify as a monument under the bill, sponsored by Republican Rob Bishop of Utah. Like many monuments, its too big. The measure would cap the size of monuments and, critically, remove the ability to protect monuments of scientific interest, ruling out places selected for their unique formations like the giant sequoia trees of California and Wyomings Fossil Butte.

In an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, Bishop called the Antiquities Act, a menace to constitutional government. Bishop targeted Barack Obamas use of the act to protect 553.6m acres in two dozen monuments across the country. Actions such as these are not the rule of law, he said. It is arbitrary rule by one man.

A winding road through Sequoia national park. Photograph: Nick Jackson/Rex Shutterstock

Bishops bill, which has drawn united opposition from sporting and recreation groups across the country, could give legal authority to the Trump administration to shrink monuments. The interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, this summer recommended reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and Oregons Cascade-Siskiyou monument, but he hasnt made his review public.

Public lands supporters across the American west see it as hand-in-glove with the Trump administrations efforts to shrink public lands and protections. For many, the attack is personal.

You look at places like the Upper Missouri Breaks here in Montana or the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks in New Mexico, these monuments are places for us to go experience the solitude and challenge that really only our public lands allow us, said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national conservation group based in Montana. Our connections are deep and pretty strong. These are not places you put on a shelf.

Bishops office did not respond to requests for comment on the measure, which last week passed the House natural resources committee without public hearing.

Three million comments left by the American public

For a sense of the depth of Americas love affair with its national monuments, take a stroll through the nearly three million comments submitted to the interior department on Zinkes still officially private review of the scope of national monuments.

Moon over Baldy Peak and La Cueva, on the west side of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peak, New Mexico. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The vast majority one appraisal says 96% favor keeping current monuments for future generations. Zinke has dismissed the flood of comments, saying they were part of a well-orchestrated national campaign. And yes, many are repetitive; many are personal.

One person wrote:

I grew up in Arizona, traveling to national monuments with my family on vacation in a pop-up trailer. Camping around the country to go visit national monuments was a highlight of my childhood and one I would like my future children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to experience.

Others go straight to the point:

Please do not reduce our public monuments. They are more important than most people understand. They should be expanded, not reduced.

And another:

I want public lands preserved so my daughter and her children can enjoy the natural beauties of America as I was able to do growing up.

Zinkes monument review reportedly includes a surprising expansion a recommendation for a new monument in his home state of Montana, protecting the Badger Two Medicine, a wilderness sacred to the Blackfeet Indian Tribe.

But theres a catch, even for the swaggering interior secretary who styles himself as a modern-day Theodore Roosevelt.

At nearly 130,000 acres, his favored wilderness is too big, and too wild, to qualify as a monument under Bishops bill.

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