Why Our Natural Monuments Deserve More Protection than Outdated National Monuments

Distant picture of rock cliffs in Bears Ears NM

Photo: BLM.gov

By Sherri Goodman and Leah Emanuel

On June 26, President Trump issued an executive order demanding the prosecution of “anarchists and left-wing extremists” destroying and defacing American monuments. Asserting that it is the role of the Federal Government to protect federal monuments, memorials, statues, and property to their fullest extent, the order proclaims that Federal, State and local governments must prosecute those who damage national monuments as appropriate and permitted under Federal law.

This executive order came after a series of protests and riots erupted throughout the United States demanding an end to police brutality as well as more fundamental changes to address systemic racism across the United States. Amidst the protests, numerous monuments, including those of Confederate leaders, were vandalized and destroyed. While no Confederate monuments are explicitly stated within the executive order, it is evident through a collection of Trump’s tweets and TV appearances over the past month that the President’s implicit motive is to preserve monuments dedicated to the Confederate cause.

In what will have to remain a thought experiment for the moment, we decided to apply the logic of the Executive Order to our nation’s most precious natural monuments.

While demanding stronger federal and local action to protect monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders, Trump has rolled back numerous protections of another category of American monuments: natural U.S. monuments. Natural monuments are defined by federal law as areas of land or sea that have been designated as protected zones in order to preserve their vast biodiversity, habitats for species, and cultural value.

Within the past three years, the Trump administration has reviewed at least 27 natural monuments for downsizing in order to provide greater opportunities for destructive mining or drilling as well as commercial fishing. These monuments include Bears Ears (a pair of spectacular towering buttes) and the exquisitely colored Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, both of which contain valuable natural ecosystems and sacred tribal lands. Not content with cutting off land-based protections, Trump also rolled back conservation of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the New England coast, which he approved for commercial fishing in June despite the fact that commercial fishermen will benefit little by the removal of the previous ban.

Critical habitat for a collection of rare and irreplaceable species, Bears Ears is home to at least 18 species included in the Endangered Species Act. The monument is essential for biodiversity and landscape-level conservation. Additionally, Bears Ears is in the top 4 percent of darkest night skies in the western U.S., meaning it has some of the lowest light pollution in the region.

While admired by the Trump administration for its collection of coal deposits unnecessary to mine, Grand Staircase-Escalante is an essential and unparalleled biological resource. Encompassing five ecological life zones from low-lying desert to coniferous forest, the monument provides a vast assemblage of ecosystems and an incredible collection of biodiversity. This unique geographical and biological diversity paired with its minimal human activity makes the site a unique area for comparative climate change studies. “Without protections, these opportunities will be lost and with them our ability to build essential knowledge and resources for mitigating climate change,” Sarah Bauman, executive director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, said.

Stretching approximately 4,913 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts consist of rich oceanic biodiversity within its deep marine ecosystems. Containing at least 54 different species of deep-sea corals along with other fauna, the monument supports an array of fish and invertebrate species. The slopes of the canyons and seamounts provide currents that lift nutrients, forming phytoplankton and zooplankton and thus drawing numerous fish populations as well as whales, sharks, and seabirds.

While this vast diversity in marine life makes the area seemingly attractive for commercial fishing, which is why Trump stripped protections put in place by President Obama, studies demonstrate that these adjustments in regulations will not have profound effects on commercial fishing revenue. Historically, the monument was not uniquely important for any one fishery, and in fact, was one of the least fished areas in the U.S. Atlantic. Most fishing vessels near the area generate “5% or less of their annual landings from within the monument.” Trump’s restructuring of the monument’s protections were misguidedly motivated by an effort to address the drop in the New England fishing industry, which has experienced a 16% decline in fishing employment from 1996 to 2017. What he missed is that this decline is largely due to climate fluctuations–New England waters are among the fastest-warming in the world–and overfishing in the region.

Let’s hope the President does not try to spend money for Confederate Monument preservation and his dubious “Heroes Garden” from the now permanently funded Land and Water Conservation Fund that Congress passed ten days ago.  These monies are intended to protect our natural heritage for generations to come. The hypocritical approach of the Trump Administration in trying to save racist relics of America’s past while desecrating the natural pillars of our nation’s bounty speaks to its misplaced priorities. Instead of preserving our natural heritage for future generations of Americans, he is destroying America’s natural inheritance and resurrecting racist monuments. Time to apply this Executive Order to protect our Natural monuments, our true national heritage.

Sherri Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center and Center for Climate & Security, and former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security).

Leah Emanuel is a current Wilson Center intern with Sherri Goodman and a rising junior at Princeton University. 

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