Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the Interior Department to conduct a “review” of national monuments designated since 1996. The Utah congressional delegation has been fulminating that national monument designations at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante prevented their favorite industrial exploiters from grabbing public lands for themselves and destroying every use on these public lands except their own. They claim monument protections will gut local economies and harm rural communities.
In Wyoming, we have a little experience with the “economic devastation” caused by national monument designation, a lesson that Utah and the Trump administration would do well to heed.
In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Jackson Hole National Monument. The wealthy and conservation-minded Rockefeller family bought these lands from willing sellers and gifted them to America. Just like today’s anti-environmentalists in Utah, Wyoming’s conservation opponents of the 1940s exploded in paroxysms of vitriol against the new Jackson Hole National Monument.
Wyoming Sen. Edward Robertson stood up on the floor of Congress to make a speech, calling the new monument a “foul, sneaking Pearl Harbor blow.” Remember, the cream of our nation’s youth were embroiled in desperate fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II, so comparing the monument designation to the sneak attack that started the war in the Pacific — with 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 wounded — was, at the very least, inappropriate and inflammatory.
Vowing revenge, the Wyoming delegation fought bitterly to undo the protections. The state attorney general sued the feds and ultimately lost. Congress cooked up a bill to abolish the Jackson Hole National Monument, but Roosevelt vetoed the bill just as promptly, stating, “In the establishment of the Jackson Hole National Monument consideration was given to the interests of the people of the United States as a whole in order that the area might be preserved and made available to our citizens for the realization of its highest values, including its scenery, its scientific interest, its wildlife and its history.”
The Jackson Hole leaders howled with predictions of economic devastation: “The formation of a national park out of the lands now proposed or any part thereof will forever debar home seekers and investors, impoverish our ranges, destroy the values of our stock raising and agricultural industries, preclude the prospecting and location of minerals, destroy all prospect of future municipal and county government and greatly retard the development of the county and state, compelling residents of communities outside of proposed park extension to lose great values of their property both real and personal, compelling those within the proposed extension to be extinguished as citizens of state and compelling them to accept by arbitrary appointment insufficient and fictitious values for their property interests and otherwise impoverishing them.”
Today, Wyoming’s Teton County is the wealthiest county per capita of any county in the United States. The lowlands at the foot of the Tetons, originally protected as Jackson Hole National Monument, now bloom with wildflowers and harbor a wealth of elk, bison and grizzly bears as part of Grand Teton National Park. A seasonal migration of Americans comes to delight in these protected lands, a linchpin of Wyoming’s second-largest economic sector.
None of the dire predictions were borne out, and in 1967, Sen. Cliff Hansen, himself a former Teton County commissioner who testified in favor of abolishing Jackson Hole National Monument, said, "I want you all to know that I'm glad I lost, because I now know I was wrong. Grand Teton National Park is one of the greatest natural heritages of Wyoming and the nation and one of our great assets."
The lesson for Trump and the politicians of Utah is simple: Ignore the ominous economic prognostications from industries with a vested interest in preventing environmental conservation. Instead, stand firm behind protections for Bears Ears, Grand Staircase–Escalante and other national monuments, and you will enrich local economies, honor indigenous tribes and safeguard an endless supply of natural beauty, wildlife diversity and cultural heritage for generations to come.
Erik Molvar is the Laramie, Wyoming-based executive director of the Western Watershed Project.