President Trump announced this week his decision to destroy two national monuments: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears in Utah. This is the largest rollback of protections for treasured public lands in American history.
The purpose: a giant giveaway to the oil, gas, and mining industries at the expense of Indigenous Peoples, public health, and the environment.
Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, delegating to the President the power to preserve land forever. For more than a century, Presidents of all political stripes have used this law to protect some of our most cherished public lands.
This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land
Some politicians say the President merely gave these lands back to Utah. Just so we never have this argument again: It was never Utah’s land. If we wish to return these monuments to their previous owners, we might consider the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes. Since then, the land has belonged to the United States. And while revisionist history may have glossed over the Indigenous Peoples’ claims, no version ever placed these lands in Utah’s exclusive ownership.
Listening to the President, bureaucrats unilaterally yanked these lands from Utah. This ignores the broad support for saving these places. Our public lands belong to all of us. Not just some of us. Not even just Utah. Certainly not just the oil, gas, and mining industries.
1872 Mining Law: A Law Almost as Old as the Monuments Themselves
Monument designation is one of the few policy tools available to protect treasured public lands from the pollution and landscape destruction from hardrock mining. Converting public land to a Monument often also protects the minerals below. Otherwise, the law governing hardrock mining declares it the highest and best use of public lands.
This means in a conflict between mining and any other potential land use — oil, gas, coal, grazing, recreation, or preservation — mining always wins. We need reform that gives the public choice in land use decisions, not a law that just picks mining.
The antiquated mining law dates back even further than the Antiquities Act. President Grant signed the law in 1872, during a Manifest Destiny era of Westward expansion for pick and shovel miners seeking their fortunes in gold. Under the 1872 law, when a miner stakes a claim and discovers valuable minerals on public lands, that miner gets the land and all the riches underneath for a mere $5/acre plus an annual $155 fee. It costs me more to register my car.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante are of great historic, cultural, spiritual, and aesthetic value. Since we usually see Presidents creating monuments rather than destroying them, this week’s decision presents a very thorny legal question. Can Presidents undo monuments? Answer: No. And our allies in the resistance will see the President in court.