Thursday, March 23, 2023
March 23, 2023

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In Our View: Safeguard Monuments

Trump’s order to review designation of nation’s landscapes is shortsighted


The Hanford Reach National Monument is a swath of Eastern Washington land known for its white bluffs, diverse bird population, and 52 miles of riverfront along the Columbia. But the 194,000-acre monument might soon become known as a battleground in President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental protections for some of America’s most revered landscapes.

Last month, Trump signed an executive order calling for the review of 22 national monument designations, launching a public comment period and unleashing a political debate. Trump should recognize the importance of these lands and eschew any desire to remove protections in exchange for the extraction of fossil fuels or the creation of mining activity. The monuments are pristine areas that provide numerous recreational opportunities along with a sense of an America that will outlast us all.

To begin with, Trump’s order was developed behind flawed reasoning. The president decried the monuments as “a massive federal land grab” and an “egregious abuse of federal power” while saying the move would “give that power back to the states and the people, where it belongs.” In truth, the lands have been owned by the federal government since the nation’s westward expansion. The areas simply have had their designations altered over the years under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

While that legislation provides presidents with the ability to designate national monuments, there seemingly is nothing that allows them to reclassify those monuments. Therein lies the second flaw in Trump’s plan, and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson plans to exploit that if the Hanford Reach is targeted. “If President Trump attempts to harm Washington’s national monuments, my office will defend them,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “No president has ever claimed the authority to revoke National Monument status. The reason is simple: The act does not contemplate any such revocation, and to do so would be contrary to the language of the statute . . .”

It also would be contrary to the will of the public. The public comment period (visit to weigh in) runs through July 10, and thus far has generated more than 90,000 responses. Columnist Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times has reported that comments are running more than 100 to 1 against the review of the monuments. One example quoted by Westneat came from Arthur Kapell of Lacey: “To pass on the opportunity to protect this site is tantamount to selling the battlefields of Gettysburg or Manassas for condominium development.”

The primary impetus for Trump’s review is a desire to roll back a designation provided last year for Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. Some political figures in that state would like to open the area for oil and gas drilling and potash mining, which aligns with the president’s desire to dig, burn and drill with little regard for the environment.

This is not in the best interest of the public, a public that has demonstrated increasing reverence for our diminishing unspoiled lands. The benefits of pulling resources out of these areas would provide short-term benefits that enrich the extractors but deliver irreversible damage for the public.

As Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1913, it is “vandalism . . . to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.” For Hanford Reach and other national monuments, those words ring true more than a century later.