Are Our “Protected Lands” Really Safe?

Does the Trump’s industry-heavy campaign promises and appointments mean he will cave to big industry instead of preserving our national parks and monuments?

Photo by Sophie Stephens

Photo by Sophie Stephens

Former President Barack Obama left the White House a champion of conservation. He established 30 new national monuments and expanded four others–protecting more than 550 million acres of land–during his presidency. Most of Obama’s designations held ecological significance, but others, like the Stonewall Inn in New York City and several Southern Civil Rights sites, preserved American culture and cemented his legacy of diversity.

Donald Trump and his industry-heavy appointments provide a stark contrast. Instead of the environment, Trump champions business. He successfully campaigned on a platform that promised American jobs and the reduction of industrial regulations. Although it is difficult to foresee Trump’s public land strategy, his green light to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines suggests that Trump favors jobs over the environment and industry over culture. Trump’s determination to fulfill his promises could deal a dangerous blow to Obama’s environmental legacy.

But how much damage can Trump really do? Obama protected land using the Antiquities Act – a provision established in 1906 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give presidents the authority to protect sites with cultural, historical, or scientific value. No president has ever revoked a monument, and some in Washington, including two former attorney generals, doubt that Trump even has the legal power to revoke the designations. However, presidents can modify monuments. Obama, for instance, quadrupled the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. However, a president has never reduced a monument.

Most Republican presidents seldom or never use the Antiquities Act, but some believe Trump and his Republican voting bloc in the House and Senate could fundamentally change the long-standing law. For decades, Republicans have viewed using the Antiquities Act as presidential overreach–a land grab that bypasses the political process and, by association, the American people.

However, some Americans look to Trump for change. Protesters of a recent designation, the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, held signs lettered with “Trump this Monument.” Monument protesters object to designations because, in some cases, they reduce grazing land for cattle and attract unwanted tourism. With the help of Congress, Trump could change the Act, but he would face the wrath and litigation of environmentalists and pro-parks Americans.

But Trump’s conservation threat expands beyond monument designation spilling into a debate about where Trump will allow companies to mine and drill for fossil fuels. His cabinet is saturated with industry insiders like Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, and others who deny the very science of climate change. However, the most telling appointment may be Secretary of Interior–a position heading the National Parks Service and Bureau of Land Management. Trump’s pick is Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Montana.

Initially Zinke appeared promising. He broke with Trump’s previous claim to the “hoax” of climate change acknowledging that the climate is changing and humans are playing a role in it. Nevertheless, he supports “energy development,” which is politician-speak for mining, drilling, and fracking, on public lands. He hinted at revoking a 2016 moratorium on new coal mining on federal lands and pledged to oppose what he called “the war on coal.” Likewise, Trump heartily supports energy development calling himself “very much into fracking and drilling” in a 2015 interview with Field & Stream.

The Trump administration’s collective enthusiasm for energy raises concerns. Mining and drilling could destroy some of America’s most pristine places where Americans enjoy and learn about the natural world. More critically, it could disrupt the balance of natural habitats and ecosystems upon which thousands, if not millions, of animals, including humans, depend. Increased mining and drilling would extract more fossil fuels which, when burned, will add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere perpetuating and hastening global warming. Opening more land for fuel extraction could also create a surplus lowering the prices of fossil fuels. Although this may seem like a positive, it could make finding and adopting cheaper renewable energy alternatives seem less urgent to citizens and corporations alike. Moreover, since many countries view the United States as a world leader and example, Trump’s seeming disregard for the environment could have potential consequences for not only America but the entire world’s climate.

The Trump administration will be tested. Will they reduce monuments, abolish the Antiquities Act, and bow to fossil fuel interests?  Or will they protect America’s existing federal lands? It is too early to tell, but Trump’s industry heavy nominations and promises pose a serious potential danger to America’s federal lands, existing national monuments, and, possibly, the condition of the global climate.