Commentary: When Americans look at a map of the US, they see natural wonders. When Trump looks, he sees unrealized industry profits.

A countdown clock is projected on the side of the McNichols Civic Center building as guests arrive at a welcome party to mark the opening of the Outdoor Retailer and Snow Show Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in downtown Denver. The show, which is the largest gathering in the United States for the $887 billion outdoor and winter sports industries, is making its Denver debut after leaving Salt Lake City, Utah. A group of outdoor industry leaders and conservation organizations projected the countdown clock in protest of President Donald Trump's recent removal of vast portions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah, the largest ever elimination of protected areas in the history of the United States. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

After President Trump illegally shrank Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah last year, removing federal protections from approximately 2 million acres of public land, his supporters swore it had nothing to do with drilling or mining. They claimed the move, which is now being challenged in federal court, was about listening to public input, nothing more.

When skeptics pointed out that Grand Staircase-Escalante has known coal deposits and Bears Ears has suspected oil and gas reserves, Trump boosters — including key figures on Capitol Hill — said they were dreaming. My colleague Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, went so far as to tell a newspaper in Washington, D.C., “There is no oil and gas in the area to drill. In that Bears Ears area, there is no development possibilities that are down there.”

The New York Times reported last week that monument defenders were right all along. According to Interior Department documents and emails, the administration made the decision to shrink the Utah monuments — not because of public demand, but because of the region’s mineral extraction potential — even before it publicly announced that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would review the sites for potential modifications.

It’s telling that even an administration wedded to a policy of “energy dominance” felt the need to falsify the case for this giveaway. Despite years of Republican rhetorical attacks, the American people, including westerners, do not see national monuments as affronts to local sovereignty or barriers to economic progress. They see them, quite rightly, as places they want to protect and show their children.

Nevertheless, Secretary Zinke worked hard to maintain the fiction that Trump’s actions were based on popular demand rather than industry preference. Zinke’s public schedule last year included trips to western states, visits to the Utah monuments, heavily scripted stakeholder meetings, and the production of a report to President Trump last August (supposedly based on listening sessions) that recommended condensing or reorganizing both Utah sites as well as other national monuments.

Although many of us knew these efforts were a sham, and although House Natural Resources Committee Democrats issued a report in August 2017 underscoring the importance of mineral rights in the administration’s thinking, top officials insisted their desire for input was genuine and they were keeping an open mind.

Thanks to internal emails urging Interior Department staff, for instance, to “resolve all known mineral conflicts” at the Utah monuments, we now know that none of this was true. Secretary Zinke could have saved himself the effort. Indeed, the new monument boundaries’ vetting process was so indifferent to conflicts of interest that Interior officials missed the fact that Utah Rep. Mike Noel, the Republican architect of the plan at the state level, has a direct financial interest in the outcome thanks to property he owns in the area.

The real question is how these revelations will impact the ongoing litigation over Trump’s actions and the debate over national monuments going forward. Even many Republican lawmakers who clamored for monument cutbacks say they oppose new mining and drilling claims on recently unprotected lands. Now that the mask has come off, will we have an honest debate on the fate of these sites – or will we keep hearing the same alibis, pretexts and rationalizations?

Having that honest debate would be an instructive moment for the country. The monuments episode lays bare the unspoken fact that this administration’s governing philosophy, no matter the issue, is all about making sure their side gets rich at taxpayer expense. Public policy is treated as a zero-sum game in which any gain is someone else’s loss. Ignoring this is no longer possible, and it’s long past time we confronted its implications.

When average Americans look at a map of the United States, they see natural wonders and potential travel destinations. Trump and his cabinet see unrealized industry profits. We should remember that Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to establish national monuments, in order to protect our natural and cultural heritage from looters. That protection is more necessary than ever now that the looters are in the White House.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., is ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.