Plans finalized this month by the Trump administration to downsize two national monuments in Utah, offering access to previously protected lands for mining and drilling companies, raise one fundamental question: Why?
It is unclear what purpose, practical or symbolic, is served by this action, which shrinks Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half. Both sites are home to some of America's richest natural lands, including scenic cliffs, canyons, waterfalls and ancient ruins. Multiple Native American tribes have sacred ties to the area.
But President Donald Trump contends that both monuments were established through misuse of the Antiquities Act — President Bill Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 and President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument in 2016 — hindering economic development. His administration estimates that the previously off-limits land could produce significant revenue for energy companies, to the tune of hundreds of millions annually.
But at what cost? Is additional prosperity worth desecrating the unique beauty of protected American lands? Is it worth violating the sanctity of land protected in part because of its spiritual importance to several Native American tribes?
So far, energy companies don't seem to think so. There has been little to no commercial interest in the land, as companies likely fear the public outcry that would ensue. Conservation, tribal and paleontology groups have expressed outrage at the Trump administration's decision since it was announced in 2017. Numerous legal challenges have been launched to reverse the action.
During his time in office, Mr. Trump has taken a zealous approach to deregulation, rolling back rules, procedures and laws in a number of governmental agencies. While there can be merit to such action, deregulation for its own sake can be quite devastating. The rollback of commonsense environmental regulations, including a weakening of the Endangered Species Act, is one example. Shrinking the size of national monuments will prove to be another.
Signed into law in 1906, the Antiquities Act has been used for more than a century to protect areas of natural, cultural and scientific interest. The establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears were noble uses of this power in keeping with the act's original mission
Mr. Trump's plan to shrink both sites, meanwhile, serves seemingly no purpose beyond undoing the work of two predecessors he detests.
Originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.