The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


How Have Americans Thought About and Understood Natural Spaces?

In a move that critics are calling the largest reduction of public lands in U.S. history, President Donald Trump stood in the Utah State Capitol on Monday and announced that his administration will decrease federal protection of two national monuments. The announcement follows an extended review by the Interior Department of how to restructure or revoke 27 national monuments throughout the country.

According to information obtained from the White House, the Bears Ears National Monument will shrink by over 80 percent, while the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument will be cut in half.

Trump said that the decision reverses a history of federal overreach that places control of important natural resources in the hands of Washington bureaucrats and restricts “responsible economic development.”

“The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land,” Trump said. “You know how to protect it. And you know best how to conserve this land for many, many generations to come.”

He referred to the Antiquities Act, which was passed in 1906 and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, a proponent of environmental conservation. While the creation of national parks requires approval from Congress, the act empowers a president to designate territory a national monument.

In 2016, President Barack Obama used the act to create Bears Ears National Monument after years of lobbying by the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Zuni. The region of southeastern Utah contains sites of immeasurable ceremonial and spiritual significance for many Indigenous nations.

The Grand Staircase, an area known for its dinosaur fossils, was designated a national monument in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. At the time, Clinton’s move stopped plans for a coal mining project. As a result, many of Trump’s supporters maintain that rolling back federal protection will open the land up to development in the form of drilling, mining and fracking.

This is something many Native Americans and environmentalists are hoping they can prevent. Soon after Trump’s announcement, the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and the Ute Indian Tribe filed a lawsuit, accusing the president of violating the Antiquities Act in his decision to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument, which exceeds “the limited authority delegated to his office.” They say that the act empowers a president to create a national monument, not rescind one, and point out that the move is an issue of tribal sovereignty.

According to the New York Times, Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, confirmed that “we will stand and fight all the way,” before pointing out that over the years, the U.S. government has taken “millions of acres of my people’s land.”

A group of environmental and conservation organizations, including The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, have also filed a suit against Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for slashing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“Today’s announcement is a disgrace,” Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said on Monday. “Yet again the Trump administration has sold out the American people and our special places–all to benefit the fossil fuel elite.”

The White House has yet to comment on the lawsuits but a spokesperson for the Interior Department maintained, “we are well within our authority.”

The lawsuits promise an unprecedented legal showdown. Since the Antiquities Act was created, only two presidents–Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt–have made cuts to national monuments. In both cases, these monuments eventually became national parks. A court has never ruled on whether a president can make changes to national monuments that already exist. And how the courts respond to the issue will likely have major ramifications for the ability of a president to open federally protected lands for economic development.

The emerging legal controversy gestures to a broader theme in U.S. history about how Americans, from the colonial era to today, have thought about and understood natural spaces. To learn more, check out BackStory’s “Untrammeled: Americans and the Wilderness.”

About History Behind The Headlines: When breaking news and history collide, BackStory brings the context. This new blog feature takes trending news items and, whenever possible, offers BackStory host commentary or segments from previous episodes that provide a historical viewpoint.

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