Preserving Our Land Heritage: National Parks, National Monuments, and Wilderness Areas
By the late 1800s there was growing concern that the rapid growth of the West threatened some of the most unique parts of our land heritage, valued for their scenic beauty, geology, and wildlife habitat. These concerns led to laws designed to conserve and preserve these unique resources. Yellowstone Park, established in 1872, was the first step in creation of the National Park System. The General Land Reform Act of 1891 created forest reserves. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt began the withdrawal of lands for the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Antiquities Act of 1906 set aside unique land and ocean resources in National Monuments. The culmination of this shift toward preservation and conservation of public lands was the Multiple Use Act of 1964 creating the Public Land Law Review Commission. That Commission recommended an end to large scale disposal of public lands, and retention of federal lands to preserve their value for all Americans (Vincent 2014).
Over the past two decades presidents from both parties have used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set aside 11 million acres of land, and 760 million acres of oceans as marine monuments (U.S. Department of the Interior 2017). Bears Ears and Escalante-Staircase National Monuments, two of the 19 national monuments, created during the Obama Administration, encompass more than 3 million acres (Eilperin 2015). When President Trump took office he charged his Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, to review the national monuments created over the past 25 years. In his report Zinke recommended shrinking several national monuments, including a recommendation to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante by roughly 2 million acres. That decision has been challenged in the courts by environmental and recreational groups, and by Indian tribes (Henry 2017).
The creation of national monuments is especially contentious, because these lands are set aside through executive order, avoiding the democratic process inherent in federal lawmaking. Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears Monument in Utah was opposed by the governor, the state legislature, and Utah’s entire congressional delegation. A private group launched the Public Land Initiative, with the goal of reaching a ‘Grand Bargain’ over Bears Ears. The proposed legislation would have protected some areas of the region in exchange for opening other areas to resource development. President Obama’s executive order creating the Bears Ears Monument ignored these recommendations entirely (Public Land Initiative https://www.outsideonline.com/2056806/devils-grand-bargain-rob-bishop-western-lands).
In response to this abuse of executive authority, legislation has been introduced by Rob Bishop (R. Utah) to over haul the Antiquities Act. That legislation would limit the size of monuments that a President can designate via executive order, and impose strict limits on which “antiquities” the law can be used to protect (Henry 2017). Some critics have proposed repealing the Antiquities Act.
Conflict over our national monuments reveals a fundamental flaw in our democratic system, the emergence of an imperial presidency and emasculation of Congress. Citizens have lost faith in either the Executive or Legislative branches of the federal government to manage the 640 million acres of land in the public domain. Conflicts over land policy, such as that over Bears Ears and Escalante-Staircase, end up in the courts, wasting millions of dollars.
The rationale for federal government control of land in the public domain was that these resources would be better managed; and that public management was required to protect the environment. However, there is a growing body of evidence challenging this rationale. Public ownership of these resources is inefficient, as revealed by persistent losses by federal land management agencies. Further, surveys reveal deterioration in the ecological state of lands in the public domain over the past century. Federal ownership of land and resources in the public domain has not protected the environmental quality of these resources (Anderson et. al. 1999).
The Public Land Initiative in Utah should serve as a model for preserving our public land heritage. Transferring land in our national parks, national monuments, and wildlife areas to the states is the best way to implement this model. With state management of these lands, state legislators are more likely to respond to the different interest groups impacted by these policies. The different stakeholders are more likely to participate in the process when they can hold their state legislators accountable. The outcome would be a dynamic credence capital in which citizens and elected officials build the trust required for effective management of our public land heritage. This will strengthen a democratic process that is lacking when President’s withdraw public lands through executive order.