A democracy isn’t just about voters turning out on election day.
It’s a system that is supposed to hear the collective, majority voice of its citizens while still protecting the rights of those who speak in the minority. When it comes to national monuments under the Trump Administration though, it appears the voices of the few – who represent powerful economic interests and some rural citizens who feel ignored – far outweigh the voices of the many.
After Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke released his assessment that the acreage within two national monuments in Utah – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante – should be reduced dramatically reduced and reopened to uranium mining and fossil fuel extraction, tens of thousands of citizens cried foul and called for the original areas to remain protected. Five tribes, environmental groups and members of the hook and bullet crowd quickly sued the administration over the decision. They were the same people who had pushed for years to protect the natural, historical and cultural resources of the two iconic landscapes.
Zinke also suggested two monuments in New Mexico – Río Grande del Norte and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks – should remain the same size but that protecting road access and the interests of ranchers with grazing leases to those lands needed to be ensured.
While some ranchers have contested the size of Organ Mountains-Peaks, others have spoken in favor of protecting it as is. When it comes to the Río Grande del Norte, ranchers – along with pueblo and tribal officials, local governments and others who live in the area – worked together for years as a coalition to ensure traditional uses were protected in the new monument. A BLM staffer has already confirmed all grazing leases are still in effect and aren’t going away. No one from the Beltway, even if he’s a Montanan by birth, needs to tell Taoseños how to protect traditional interests. We’ve been fighting those battles and learning to cooperate between diverse cultures for hundreds of years.
In a final irony, the President and Zinke suggest forming a commission to involve tribes more in managing national monuments.
But apparently not in creating them.
It was tribes who pushed hard for protecting Bears Ears, the Río Grande del Norte and other monuments. Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni governments labored to make Bears Ears a reality. They were backed by 30 other tribes and the National Congress of American Indians.
“The petroglyphs, sacred sites and wildlife define our people and our heritage,” said Taos Pueblo War Chief Curtis Sandoval in a statement in November after the move to shrink Bears Ears was announced. “Our nations just celebrated Native American Heritage Month, and now more than ever we stand with Bears Ears and all the national moments under attack.”
More than 2.5 million American citizens filed comments before Zinke released his recommendations on the fate of dozens of national monuments designated by prior presidents under the Antiquities Act. Overwhelmingly those citizens said leave the monuments alone.
But those voices, apparently, weren’’t enough for the President or Zinke.
Zinke said, In an interview published in The Washington Post recently, he doesn’t cave to public pressure. “Sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuit,” he said. “It’sdoing what’s right.”
He’s correct. Sound public policy is about doing what’s right.
And that’s what millions of American citizens tried to tell he and Trump: Protecting iconic landscapes from short term economic interests is sound public policy and the right thing to do.