By Michael Dax and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz, originally published in Yes! Magazine
Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have made “monuments” out of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands to protect them from development, and no president has ever “unprotected” them. The Trump administration has now singled out 27 national monument areas to do just that.
But first, the Department of the Interior says it wants to hear from the public. On May 12, it will begin an official public comment period on the specific areas under review.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes a president to declare monuments. President Trump has said states should be able to decide what to do with those lands—including leasing them for oil and gas drilling. His April 26 executive order called for the review and possible elimination of any national monuments created in the past 20 years that are at least 100,000 acres in size.
One of those under review is the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. President Obama designated it in May 2014, protecting it from unchecked off-road vehicle use, housing development expansion, and energy development.
As the CEO/president of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, Carrie Hamblen has worked to promote the area’s potential economic benefits. In the short time the area has had a monument designation, Hamblen says, positive economic impacts are already evident. In 2016, Lonely Planet listed southern New Mexico as one of its top 10 travel destinations in the U.S. in large part because of the new monument, she says. Additionally, Las Cruces has drawn additional tourists as well as professional conferences. And through its “Monuments to Main Street” program, the community has found innovative ways of introducing visitors and residents to the monument through tours, concerts—even yoga classes. “This is something that will bring people to Las Cruces,” Hamblen emphasizes.
A recent Outdoor Industry Association report says outdoor recreation is responsible for $887 billion in direct consumer spending. The Center for Western Priorities “Golden Rush” report shows retirees are three times more likely to relocate to counties with protected lands.
Economics aside, Hamblen cites unique ecology, history, and culture the monument preserves. “We have just an incredible number of archeological opportunities, historic elements, cultural elements, and plant life,” she says. “It has such diversity in it, not only when we’re thinking of environmental preservation, but also the cultural aspect.”
Also under review is Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Montana Wilderness Association Conservation Director John Todd points to the environmental and cultural value of monument areas. “The Breaks are absolutely essential for telling our story of who we are as Montanans,” Todd says. “It’s a place where Native Americans traveled for thousands of years, but it’s also a place where Montanans can come lay their head in the exact same spot under old cottonwood trees where Lewis and Clark did.”
In Montana, Todd says, 64,000 jobs and $5.8 billion in consumer spending are supported by Montana’s outdoor economy. And he believes the public understands this and supports these monuments, citing a Colorado College poll indicating 77 percent of Montanans and 80 percent of westerners support existing monument designations.
This is what Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he wants to hear about.
A statement released Friday said a notice will be published in the Federal Register officially opening the public comment period on May 12. Written comments relating to the Bears Ears National Monument must be submitted within 15 days of publication of that notice. Written comments relating to all other designations must be submitted within 60 days.
The 27 national monuments being reviewed are:
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts
Berryessa Snow Mountain
Sand to Snow
San Gabriel Mountains
Canyons of the Ancients
Craters of the Moon
Katahadin Woods and Waters
Upper Missouri River Breaks
Basin and Range
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks
Rio Grande del Norte
Marianas Trench, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Pacific Remote Islands
Rose Atoll, American Samoa
The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears in Utah is one of the nation’s newest monuments. President Obama made the designation in December, shortly before leaving office. It is land sacred to Native Americans, with cliff dwellings and thousands of other historic and archaeologically significant sites. But Utah’s Republican representatives are in favor of removing the federal protections to open the area to commercial and energy development.
For New Mexico’s Hamblen, the conversation should be about community. “This is the time more now than ever the community needs to step up,” she says. She notes that in Las Cruces, the community refers to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks as “my” or “our” monument. “You don’t hear them saying ‘the government’s monument.’ The community has taken ownership, and I think that’s the first step, whether it’s in Las Cruces or Bears Ears. The community taking ownership over that monument and recognizing that they can be thoughtful stewards to help make that thrive.”
Here’s how to submit a comment: After May 12, go to www.regulations.gov and search for “DOI-2017-0002.” Or send a comment by regular mail to the address below.
Many environmental, conservation, and land conservancy organizations will be sending form petitions to their memberships. While form letters and petitions will be worth submitting, federal agencies typically give more weight to personalized messages. Additionally, comments that address a specific monument are likely to have more impact than general remarks about national monuments or the Antiquities Act.
Monument Review, MS-1530
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240
Re: Name of Monument
Dear Interior Secretary Zinke:
• Begin with an introduction of who you are and your connection to the particular monument.
• Next, offer your personal experience or opinion demonstrating the monument area’s value either in economic, historical, cultural, or personal terms.
Your full name, address, and contact information
The Department of the Interior will be accepting both electronic and hard-copy comments. Mailed letters will require additional security screening that could delay their arrival. Postcards do not require these additional security measures.
Make sure to send copies of your comments to elected officials. They will also be able to weigh in with Zinke and his staff.
“The Department of the Interior is the steward of America’s greatest treasures and the manager of one-fifth of our land. Part of being a good steward is being a good neighbor and listening to the American people who we represent,” said Zinke in the Interior statement. “There is no pre-determined outcome on any monument. I look forward to hearing from and engaging with local communities and stakeholders as this process continues.”