Why monuments matter

Executive Order 13792 of April 26, 2017 orders the Secretary of the interior to review the validity of all national monuments designated after 1996. In total, these monuments preserve more than 13 million acres of land, and 434 million acres of marine habitats. The review is probably a first step in eliminating or reducing the size of these crucial monuments.

The facts about national monuments

  1. National monuments are mostly administered by the National Parks Service. For all intents and purposes, they have the same function and protections as Parks.
  2. Monuments are made by presidential proclamation.
  3. Monuments can only be changed or removed by Congress. Only 3 small parks have been abolished (7 converted to state protection)
  4. The President and Department of the Interior cannot remove monuments, but they can deny them funding and enforcement.
  5. Many famous national parks began as monuments, including Grand Canyon, Olympic, Petrified Forest, Zion, Bryce, Saguaro, Joshua Tree,and Capitol Reef.

If you are reading this before May 24, you can comment on the monument review at regulations.gov. Here is a copy of my comment (which was influenced by my first post on this blog) if you want inspiration.

I do not support the review of established monuments. I have several reasons, but I will focus on the economic because I hope they will be the most persuasive. The long term economic development of areas near national monuments will only be improved by the monuments, never decreased.

The land of the United States has been under development for hundreds of years. The Homestead Act (12 Stat. 392, 1862) offered land to anyone who could improve it, which led to a vast expansion of private land. I think the “twenty-dollar-bill test” is appropriate here. The name stems from the parable of an economist and his friend walking down the street. The friend spots a twenty dollar bill on the ground and points it out. The economist replies, “Couldn’t be a twenty, someone would have picked it up already.” That is, the lands being reserved for national monuments do not have great economic value, or else they would have been developed years ago.

There are many people whose economic well-being has been negatively impacted by national monuments. However, they often belong to unsustainable industries. One of the fundamental challenges to Devil’s Hole National Monument came from the Cappaert family in Southern Nevada. The Cappaerts challenged the Monument because the Department of the Interior asked them to stop pumping groundwater for their farm Cappaert (Cappaert v. United States, 426 S. Ct. 128, 1976). If you’ve ever been to southern Nevada, you understand why this is confusing. It is the heart of the Sonoran Desert. Water is crucially limited, and farming is probably the least efficient use of it. The Cappaerts were forced to slow their groundwater usage, and in turn the tourists, rangers, and scientists could keep bringing real, sustainable jobs to the barren area. Industries surrounding national monument land are often based on resource extraction (logging, mining, etc.). While they may bring money in the short term, resources are inevitably used up. The long term prospects of tourism and the benefits of science on park land provide more hope for long-term economic benefit than resource extraction.

In a hundred years, few will remember the geopolitical meanderings of this tumultuous year. Industries will change, people will argue, countries will split and reform. Economic gain in the United States will come more and more from high-level tech and finance. But in 2117, your great grandson might stand at the top of Shay mountain in the Northern reaches of Bear’s Ears National Monument and silently thank you for conserving something for him. At the end of the day, conservation is not about hugging trees or killing industries; it is about ensuring that we do not deprive our great grandchildren from the chance to decide what they want from their land.

This post will be quickly outdated as this moves forward, but for now, it is a good opportunity to learn about one of the most interesting conservation topics, the Antiquities Act. The Act was written in the early twentieth century, when lands in the west were rapidly being developed and pillaged. It allows the president broad power to declare a national monument on any federal land of historical or scientific interest.

I had the fortune to take a class in Conservation Law and policy this semester. I wrote a paper about the Antiquities Act precisely because I was worried that this administration would attempt to dismantle national monuments. If you care about this issue, I think it is a good background on understanding it. There is a fair bit of legalese, but I did try to make it a fun read: VanWallendael_Statute. I welcome questions or comments about the paper and the topic in general.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 11.03.12 AM.pngElk Ridge, Bear’s Ears National Monument. From Bear’s Ears tribal coalition