Opinion

Why Our Large-Scale National Monuments Should Stay Intact

As Secretary Zinke weighs changes, he should look to the long history of protecting these vital public lands

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The public comment period on 22 national land monuments proposed for possible modification or elimination has ended. Now Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has the task of weighing the enormous outpouring of submissions as he considers his recommendations to President Donald J. Trump, expected by the end of August.

Some have noted that the wording of the Antiquities Act—the 111-year-old law that gives presidents the authority to designate national monuments that safeguard “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest”—also limits designations to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” But that doesn’t mean that land monuments should necessarily be diminutive—especially when the aim is to conserve the natural resources and wildlife they contain. As Secretary Zinke has acknowledged, species and landscapes are legitimate objects of scientific interest. And science tells us that their protection is often best achieved by conserving an expansive landscape that prevents loss of biodiversity and maintains healthy ecosystems.

In fact, presidents have long used the Antiquities Act to designate monuments that cover large swaths of land—beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the act and used it two years later to establish the 800,000-plus acre Grand Canyon National Monument, which Congress designated as a national park in 1919. Calvin Coolidge established Alaska’s 1.38 million-acre Glacier Bay as a national monument—with Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter adding to it years later. Herbert Hoover used the act to create what is now Death Valley National Park—nearly 850,000 acres in California near the Nevada border.

Similarly, courts have long supported bringing landscapes of this size under the protection of the Antiquities Act. In 1920, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the law to protect the Grand Canyon, citing its vast size along with the attention it had attracted from explorers, scientists, and tourists, as evidence that it was an “object of unusual scientific interest.”

Not only are large-scale monuments vital to protect important “objects,” but they also provide open spaces to find recreation or seek solitude, serve as habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, and strengthen the economies of surrounding communities. Two decades after its designation, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument continues to boost the bottom lines for residents of nearby Garfield and Kane counties. A recent report by Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research firm, found that the number of jobs in those counties increased by 24 percent and real personal income rose 32 percent since the monument was established in 1996. And from 2001 to 2015, the communities in southern New Mexico’s Doña Ana County near the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument experienced a 42 percent jump in real personal income while employment went up by 27 percent.

When President Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon National Monument on Jan. 11, 1908, he said, “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is,” adding, “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.” Over the past several months, more than 2 million comments were submitted to Secretary Zinke about special places like this across the country, encouraging him to recommend that the monuments under review remain as they are now for future generations. We hope he listens.

Tom Wathen is a vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, responsible for conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and Chile.

This piece was originally published in The Hill. Read the full article here.

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