Despoiling Our National Parks Betrays Our Democracy

On Monday, President Trump announced he was reducing the size of two Utah national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

This unprecedented move, which shrinks the monuments by almost 2 million acres, is a disappointment. It may well be illegal, and it was immediately challenged in court.

But it is not a surprise. It reflects a vision of America that has been gaining ground in recent years, one in which our collective American identity is reduced to isolated individuals and the federal government is seen as a distant enemy rather than the representative of the people.

(It also continues a long tradition of disregarding the interests of Native Americans, but that is a different point than the one we address here.)

Explaining why he reduced the monuments, Trump said that “the natural resources of Utah” should not be controlled “by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.”

That’s one way one of looking at it. The idea that all decisions should be made at the lowest possible level—by states, or towns, or private individuals—has a long history in American thought.

But it is not actually the fundamental American idea. The first American act—the declaration of independence—is an act of separation from a distant government, but it is also an act of union. It is not a declaration of isolated individuals or even separate states; it is “the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.”

The idea of the nation as a single entity was crystallized with the ratification of the Constitution; it was preserved, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, by the Union victory in the civil war.

The federal government, as Abraham Lincoln reminded us in the Gettysburg Address, is not an alien occupying force; it is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our American identity is fundamentally a shared one. Americans hold something in common: not race or religion but the ideals of our Constitution. The Constitution announces the American experiment as a collective project. We the People set out to form a more perfect Union, to provide for the common defence, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

Those are collective goals. They describe a project in which Americans will work together for the common good, in which we will respect our fellow citizens and generations yet unborn and hold their interests as highly as our own.

What is great about America is not that it allows some people to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else, or of generations yet to come. It is that we have a shared vision of what is valuable, our founding principles. It is that we are one nation and not a collection of individuals only out for themselves.

Public lands are a visible symbol of this commitment, that the riches and beauties of our land belong to all the people and not to special interests. When our great-great grandfathers worked together to establish how our country should forever guard our parks and monuments, they were not only saving the wonders of nature.

They were embodying a vision of America; they were saying that not just national monuments but the nation itself belongs to the people.

There is little question that the reduction of these monuments goes against the will of the people. Over 2.7 million public comments were submitted by Americans during the Interior’s 60-day comment period. Over 98 percent of those comments expressed support for protecting, maintaining or expanding national monuments.

Such was also the view of Theodore Roosevelt. “Here is your country,” he wrote. “Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the his-tory and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

John Muir also spoke of the importance to remain vigilant in protecting our country’s treasures. “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded” he wrote. Thus the Yosemite Park, the beauty glory of California and the Nation, Nature’s own mountain wonderland, has been attacked by spoilers ever since it was established, and this strife I suppose, must go on as part of the eternal battle between right and wrong.”

The question for Americans now is whether the people are still their own rulers, whether we are still in charge of our nation, or whether we have lost control of our lands and country alike to special interests and narrow partisanship.

The struggle over the monuments reflects a deeper struggle over America. Neither our lands nor our ideals should be up for sale.

The Republic must not be stripped down for parts.

Kermit Roosevelt is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania law school and the great-great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt.

Robert Hanna is the great-great-grandson of the naturalist John Muir, and an advocate for the protection and preservation of wild lands.