Politics & Policy

President Trump’s Courageous Decision to Shrink Utah Monuments Places Principle Ahead of Politics

Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods in the Bears Ears National Monument (Photo: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management)
The people who live nearby understand how Clinton’s and Obama’s actions harmed their communities.

President Trump traveled to Utah this week to announce a reduction in the Grand Staircase–Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. The historic action demonstrates that the Trump administration is committed to abiding by the law — whether a majority of Americans want him to or not.

The Antiquities Act — under which President Clinton and President Obama designated a combined total of 3.2 million acres in Utah alone — was created to protect antiquities, or objects of historic or scientific interest. To that end, it expressly requires that designations be “limited to the smallest possible area consistent with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The act is not a landscape-conservation tool, and using it as such is an obvious breach of the plain language of the law.

President Trump’s decision to shrink the two Utah monuments, which are bigger than all five of the state’s national parks combined, indicates that he is serious about squaring the use of the Antiquities Act with the intent of the Congress that passed it.

Reducing the monuments, then, is the right decision, and a courageous one at that. Activist groups at the national level frequently point to special-interest opinion polls suggesting that most Americans oppose downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase. It may surprise some, but I could concede that point. President Trump may not be doing himself any favors with the national electorate.

Every common-sense person supports the broadly stated principle of conservation, and polling questions, limited by space and perhaps colored by ideological bent, can do little more than frame the question reductively: conservation vs. non-conservation.

Yet there is a more fundamental question that special-interest groups consistently overlook: The majority is not infallible. Indeed, the very structure of our government is built on that timeless truth. The rule of law and federalism — state and local control of state and local affairs — are designed to protect minorities from the majority when it goes too far.

It should not be surprising that people who live in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and everywhere in between — except, of course, near Bears Ears and Grand Staircase themselves — support maintaining monuments. They do not have to live with the consequences.

The public at large reaps all the supposed benefits of the monuments without having to live with their deadening economic impact.

To grasp the full extent of the disconnect, compare the public support for Bears Ears with the virtually unanimous opposition from the people’s representatives in Utah and San Juan County: The county commission, the state legislature, the local chapter of the Navajo Nation, the governor, and every member of the state’s congressional delegation strenuously opposed the designation.

The disconnect is easily explained. The public at large reaps all the supposed benefits of the monuments without having to live with their deadening economic impact. They do not have to bear the indignity of having one man in Washington dictate their livelihoods, ostensibly to conserve land — a task they had been ably performing themselves for generations.

By contrast, local communities living near Grand Staircase and Bears Ears do have to endure these hardships. As monument sympathizers never tire of pointing out, these communities are a minority. On the national level, they have virtually no political clout, no ability to negotiate for their own interests. The national majority holds all the cards, while the tiny communities that do not want their way of life upended are powerless.

It is for precisely this type of situation that federalism is designed: to protect minorities from short-sighted majorities that might be tempted, for whatever reason, to trample their rights. Those who are directly affected by policy should drive that policy. Federalism is in turn protected by the rule of law, under which those in power must abide by the laws as written, whether their electorate wants them to or not.

President Trump has made the courageous choice. By scaling back Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, he is standing up for local communities and adhering to the fundamental props of American government: federalism and the rule of law. As we will hear repeatedly in the coming weeks, this decision is unpopular with many people, and he can expect strong opposition. Good for him. He is showing a willingness to adhere to principle for the benefit of people, rather than blowing with the political winds.


Monuments Executive Order: Not the First Time — Legislation Would Be Better

The Distant Conservative Heritage of the National Park Service

Trump Wants to Free Up Federal Lands, His Interior Secretary Fails Him

— Rob Bishop represents Utah’s first district in the House of Representatives.

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