There is nothing more predictable than Utah officials, especially Congressman Rob Bishop, coming unglued over a national monument designation. And when that designation is located in Utah, you can expect the emotional equivalent of a nuclear meltdown.
That is exactly what happened when President Obama announced his designation of Bears Ears and Gold Butte national monuments.
The reaction is predictable because of Bishop and company’s radical, deep-seated opposition to public lands and virtually any effort to protect them. Bishop is the anti-Theodore Roosevelt, and his agenda — which runs counter to our longstanding American conservation ethic — is not the least bit conservative.
As ironic as it may seem, Obama’s decision to protect Bears Ears and Gold Butte reflects genuinely conservative values. Those designations are conservative irrespective of who designated them.
Ronald Reagan correctly pointed out, “What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves. ” Reagan was echoing a stewardship ethic embraced by conservatives throughout history, including Abraham Lincoln, the aforementioned Teddy Roosevelt, and author Russell Kirk, whom Reagan labeled “the prophet of modern conservatism.”
According to Kirk, “There is nothing more conservative than conservation.”
It makes sense then that the Antiquities Act, which gives the president authority to designate national monuments, is a Republican idea. It was introduced in Congress by a Republican, passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law on June 11, 1906, by another Republican, President Roosevelt.
It specifically granted the president authority to designate monuments, because Congress had proven incapable of acting quickly or decisively enough to save America’s cultural and natural heritage from plunder.
In the early 1900s, our nation faced a serious problem with the rampant looting and destruction of historic artifacts on public lands, much of which was done to turn a quick buck. Time after time, Congress failed to act quickly enough to preserve them.
There were similar concerns about the exploitation and abuse of the nation’s wildlife and natural landscapes. Birds and mammals had been hunted to near extinction for the feather hat and fur market, iconic geologic features had been defaced or otherwise damaged, and entire landscapes had been stripped bare of trees.
That was the sad state of affairs prior to passage of this law. America’s cultural and natural wealth was being ruined by a voracious and unchecked greed.
Apparently, not that much has changed in 110 years.
With Bears Ears beset by threats, including the same kind of looting and vandalism the Antiquities Act was designed to prevent, Congressman Bishop was given every opportunity to come up with legislation protecting the area. Instead, he peddled his broader and much maligned Public Lands Initiative (PLI) as the answer.
Not only does Bishop’s PLI offer inadequate protections for Bears Ears, much of it is an unprecedented giveaway to the very interests seeking to exploit the region — and other public lands in Utah — for short-term gain or gratification.
Nevada’s Gold Butte area is experiencing similar threats. Vandalism of historical sites and other resource damage has been well documented, as has illegal activities by the militant Bundy clan and its supporters.
As with Bears Ears, the outlook for legislative protection is dim. A bill to protect Gold Butte has been bottled up in Congress and shows no sign of moving.
The Rob Bishops of the world despise the Antiquities Act for the very reason our nation’s most genuine and thoughtful conservatives have embraced it, because it enables the president — or Congress — to place America’s long-term national interests above greed-driven parochial ones.
Bears Ears and Gold Butte belong to all of us. They are shining examples of America’s history, its cultures and its spectacular natural beauty. We should all be grateful for the added protection these designations afford.
President Reagan, as he so often did, put our responsibility for such assets in the proper perspective when he said, “This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.”
David Jenkins is the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national nonprofit organization.