On Monday, Dec. 4, President Donald Trump announced that he'd be slashing the size of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument.
The southwestern landscape — which currently covers 1.3 million acres of red rock canyons, sweeping vistas, and archaeology sites, such as ancient cliff dwellings — would be shrunk to about 15% of its current size. Another nearby monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, would also be cut by about half.
National monuments are sites already owned by the federal government that have been set aside as particularly important to cultural or natural heritage. The Statue of Liberty is a national monument, for example.
Bears Ears was designated as a national monument in late 2016 by President Barack Obama after lobbying from local environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and local Native American tribes to protect them from oil and gas extraction, logging, mining, or other environmental harms.
In his announcement about this decision, Trump explained, "Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington."
But this is a wild mischaracterization of how protected lands actually work and who owns them.
National monuments aren't just pretty places for elites kept around for their good looks. They're assets that belong to the people — and there are lots of reasons why that matters.
Tourists check out ancient rock art at Bears Ears. Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management/Flickr.
For one thing, they're a good investment.
National parks, monuments, and other public lands are the backbones of domestic tourism and outdoor recreation such as hunting, fishing, and hiking. The outdoors industry is worth more than $800 billion a year and supports 7.6 million jobs.
In fact, a study showed that just being near protected lands could help bring economic growth to small towns or rural areas.
For another, the wild areas of the United States help nourish and sustain its citizens.
About 124 million Americans get their drinking water from national forests and grasslands. And forests remove as much as 10% of America's carbon emissions from the atmosphere each year.
Finally, many of them help protect our history from literal grave-robbers.
Ancient cliff dwellings. Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management/Flickr.
Bears Ears, for instance, has been home to the local Native American tribes since time beyond memory and is home to thousands of important historical and archaeological sites, some dating back as far as 13,000 years ago. Looting, vandalism, and grave-robbery has plagued the area for years, and archaeologists and historians were hoping that federal protection might finally put an end to it. Now those hopes have been dashed.
"This is the worst-case scenario," Jason Chuipka, co-owner of Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants, told Nature.
The New York Times quoted Helaman Thor Hale and Andrea Hale, who are Native Americans, as saying of Trump's move, “It’s a historical trauma our people have been through over and over."
But listen, you're not here for a deluge of facts and quotes. If you are, there are plenty of amazing articles and resources out there that show how incredible our parks and monuments are. What you're here for is this:
This land is not just Trump's land. It's your land.
The Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears. Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management/Flickr.
National parks and monuments aren't the president's land or Congress' land. They are just the stewards of them. The real owners are all of us.
Trump's decision is already being challenged in the courts. On Monday, a coalition of Native American tribes filed a lawsuit. Environmental organizations like The Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society have followed suit, and the retailer Patagonia announced it will as well.
Until these cases are decided, however, the fate of Bears Ears is uncertain.