More than 100 years ago, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt feared that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild places from over-development and what he called “land grabbers” and “special interests.”
So Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve vulnerable public lands, cultural treasures, forests and waterways for our “children and their children’s children forever.”
Now, the Trump administration, with the backing of some Utah state officials, is threatening to turn its back on the bipartisan legacy supported by 16 presidents—eight Republicans and eight Democrats. Utah’s extraordinary Bears Ears National Monument has been singled out as the first target of a campaign to strip some of our most iconic public lands of their protected status.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has indicated he will recommend that the government dramatically shrink the 1.5 million acre national monument, which could open the landscape to oil and gas drilling and other potentially damaging activities.
That is shortsighted and just plain wrong. And the National Audubon Society is bringing together 400 leaders from across its state and chapter network this weekend in Park City to support the protection of Bears Ears.
Why is Audubon, a centrist bird conservation group, involved in this debate? Our membership and local chapters are made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents. Birds don’t have a party, but they have a constituency of 47 million Americans who enjoy watching birds, second only to gardening as a hobby. More than 430 of our chapters and state offices have a clear message for Secretary Zinke and Utah‘s leaders: Step away from this very bad idea.
Consider the economic importance of Bears Ears and our other federal parks in Utah. Last year alone, 14.4 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.1 billion in local communities while visiting our national parks. That supports 17,900 local jobs and generates another $1.6 billon for the Utah economy.
And at a time when we are struggling to improve our economy, visitor spending connected to Bears Ears and other national parks is one of the fasting-growing income generators in Utah — visitor spending nearly doubled in just the last five years.
Utah residents cherish our public lands and natural wonders and the birds and wildlife they support. According to the annual Conservation in the West poll released by Colorado College earlier this year, a strong majority of Utah’s residents want their monuments to remain just as they are. Sixty percent of those surveyed said national monument designation should remain in place.
Today, birds are facing more threats than ever. And these dangers will only grow over time, especially in Utah and other Western states.
Reducing protections for Bears Ears could jeopardize a diverse array of birds — such as the majestic Golden Eagle, Pinyon Jay, Hairy Woodpecker and Mountain Bluebird — and other wildlife that depend on their wild spaces to survive expanding development and other threats.
Instead of listening to Utah residents who depend on Bears Ears for jobs, or who enjoy spending time outdoors fishing, hunting, hiking and birding, or who revere Bears Ears as a sacred place, the Trump administration and some state officials are bending to big corporations that want to profit off our national lands.
You can bet that if the administration is successful in opening Bears Ears to mining, drilling and other commercial activities, none of our national monuments and public lands will be safe.
Republican President Teddy Roosevelt believed that robbing our children and grandchildren of our nation’s greatest treasures to give a few corporations short-term financial gain was unconscionable. We believe most Utah residents agree.
David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society