By asking Congress to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act, the Deseret News (Dec. 3) places our state at odds with both the legacy of our history and the promise of our future.
When the editors write, “Nearly two-thirds of Utah is owned by the federal government,” they miss an essential truth. I would say, “nearly two-thirds of Utah is owned by the people of the United States, managed and held in public trust by the federal government.”
Utah has the nation’s second highest percentage of public lands because we are the second driest state. Disparity in rainfall explains why so few well-watered Eastern states retain so few public lands — and why they lack our sweep of undeveloped deserts and mountains, open to all. Our dry land couldn’t provide a living to homesteaders, and this is why so much of Utah remains publicly owned.
The editors worry about Utah being “vulnerable to future monument designations.” This is a gift, not a burden. Our dry lands, our public treasures, contain landscapes unique on the planet.
Utahns have the accidental honor of living in the midst of these public lands. Our citizens contribute insider knowledge to the never-ending national conversation about the future of these landscapes. But the rest of America has equal say.
We can learn from the experiences of neighboring Western states in grappling with the promise of public lands.
When FDR used his authority under the Antiquities Act to proclaim Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, Wyoming’s politicians reacted just as today’s Utah officials responded to Grand Staircase and Bears Ears. Teton County Commissioner Cliff Hansen illegally drove cattle through the new monument in protest. Wyoming’s attorney general sued the feds — and lost. The Wyoming delegation pushed a bill through Congress to exempt the state from further executive-order national monuments.
When FDR vetoed Congress’ bill to abolish Jackson Hole National Monument in 1944, he wrote of his use of the Antiquities Act, “There are few official acts of the President so amply supported by precedent.”
Roosevelt expressed sympathy for local voices and mentioned ways to accommodate them, but the president emphasized that he was acting on behalf of the nation. “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.” That’s a clear statement of the irreplaceable value of the Antiquities Act.
Decades later, after serving as Wyoming governor and a U.S. senator, Cliff Hansen admitted he had been wrong about the monument — which had long since been added to Grand Teton National Park. He said in 1967, “I want you all to know that I'm glad I lost.” Teton County is now the country’s wealthiest county per capita, and the park fuels this economic engine.
In Colorado, during Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s aggressive review of our national monuments, conservatives spoke in unison with progressives. Republicans Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Cory Gardner wrote to Zinke in defense of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (in Tipton’s district): “Coloradans understand that our public lands system is unique among all the countries in the world.”
Utah cherishes its five national parks — four of which began as national monuments proclaimed by presidents using their authority under the Antiquities Act. These “mighty five” national parks, along with our national monuments, drive our tourism industry. Any move to hamstring future presidents who wish to create additional protections for our public lands is short-sighted and misguided. Leave the powers of the president to use the Antiquities Act in place.
Utah writer Stephen Trimble serves on the board of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners. His most recent book is "Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands."