A few days ago, I wrapped up our fifth year of leading a Sierra Club Military Outdoors trip that brings 50 of our nation’s veterans and their partners through the Green River in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. It’s no secret that veterans like me have become a significant voice of support in calling for protection of America’s public lands.
Why do we love our public lands so much? Because so many of us have felt first hand the incredible benefits of spending time in the country we fought to defend. Time outdoors for many of us, regardless of the wounds we did or did not receive, and regardless when we served, has given us a pathway to a healthier and more fulfilling life.
The benefit of public lands extends well beyond habitat preservation, tourism dollars, air and water quality — though obviously those are extremely important. Our experiences on public lands — regardless if we served or not — can offer a chance to reset, to heal, improve our health and build relationships in the great outdoors.
But, despite overwhelming support for public lands preservation, politics continue getting in the way. It’s a shame that talk of “land grabs” and “federal overreach” has any place in debate over our national monuments. As someone who fought for our country and its freedoms, I’m stressing the need to hear the facts about Utah’s public lands and denounce recommendations to reverse their protections.
Consider Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As myths float about the feds simply stealing acres from the state, the monument continues generating millions for Utah schools and communities. A quick breakdown: when designated as a national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante included a small acreage of land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. This trust transfers money generated from land use to support the Utah public school system. However, to compensate, the federal government not only provided a $50 million payment for the schools but, to date, the monument has generated $310 million for the schools, surrounding counties and various public services. Since its creation, Grand Staircase-Escalante has correlated with a 32 percent income increase in the region and employment boost of over 24 percent according to Headwaters Economics.
Utah’s delegation has failed to communicate these truths — leading to ill-thought calls for the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante and the culturally iconic Bears Ears National Monument, while putting more of our national monuments on the chopping block.
I haven’t even touched on what these places mean to Utah’s Native populations. Like veterans’ association of healing and relief with public lands, tribal populations have a deep religious and spiritual connection to many national monuments. Bear Ears is a first-of-its-kind site in encapsulating centuries of Native American history and offering the country a glimpse of its rich, environmentally-conscious culture.
The Trump administration continues to disregard the value of public lands for so many diverse and important groups of Americans — specifically ones that have greatly contributed to our country’s culture, local economies and spoken up for wilderness and its transformative opportunities. Secretary Zinke’s recently leaked national monuments recommendations are unprecedented and the largest attack on public lands in American history.
As a veteran and self-labeled “lover of public lands,” Zinke should recognize that in altering national monuments, he is disenfranchising all Americans. These places should be left to serve our nation’s heroes, future generations and all those with strong connections to their history and culture.
Stacy Bare is a veteran of the Iraq War, the director of Sierra Club Outdoors and a 2014 recipient of the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.