Sacrificing natural areas for financial gain

Cliff formations at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

As promised, President Trump signed proclamations in recent weeks that drastically scaled back two national monuments in Utah.

He ordered the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears NM reduced to 201,876 acres and the 1.9 million acres of Grand Staircase-Escalante NM reduced to 1 million.

Trump said his proclamations will keep Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante “public lands for public use.”

State leaders in Utah cheered. They’ve always hated the broad designations that prohibit mining, drilling, grazing, and other sources of local income.

Environmentalist groups, Native American tribes, and outdoor retailers like Patagonia booed and began legal action to stop Trump’s move. They say the monuments protect important archeological sites and native artifacts and limit where outdoor enthusiasts may hike, climb, or roam.

What will happen to the 25 additional national monuments reviewed by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke this year remains unclear or unannounced. But many fear the impetus to shrink.

Personally, I don’t get Trump’s statement about preserving “public lands for public use.” That seems a contradiction to me.

Actually, it seems shrinking the monuments takes land out of public use for hiking, camping, sightseeing, and general exploring. Instead, we might see drilling rigs, ore haulers, and cattle in those regions.

I spend part of my time in the West. It’s a big place – bigger than many Easterners realize. It’s easy to drive a hundred miles without seeing a town or any sign of human life.

I believe there’s plenty of room for oil and mineral extraction and livestock grazing without sacrificing important historic and conservation sites.

As for money, I understand that Utah’s leaders want the financial benefit that comes with development and mining. That’s new tax dollars for state and local entities.

But all are likely to lose tourism dollars in the process if the word spreads that America is no longer interested in preserving its wild and scenic places.

Tourism is big business in Utah and has gotten even bigger in recent years due to increased media promotion. Climbers, hikers, hunters, and general outdoor lovers flock to the southern part of the state by the millions these days.

I wrote about that increase in September after looping through Zion, Grand Canyon, and Bryce national parks. A Zion ranger told me the number of visitors is increasing yearly (up to nearly five million in his park this year) as more Americans and foreign visitors discover this country’s natural wonders.

Those folks shopped in Utah’s stores, bought gas at its service stations and ate in the state’s restaurants. Doesn’t that business (and income) count for something?

I don’t see how sacrificing important natural areas for short-term financial gain will benefit Utah or any other state in the long run.

More important is the message it sends that America values money more than its unique natural beauty and cultural heritage.

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