Nowhere is the tension between short and long-term values so furiously fought as on our western public lands – a multi-generational struggle around issues of sovereignty, identity, and regional or national definitions of well-being.
Shortly before leaving office, President Obama used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to confer national monument designation on 1.35 million acres of Utah's canyon lands. Five First Nation tribes had sought this designation for an area rich in native artifacts and still carrying memory of themselves in its hard places. These are the canyons in which the Navajo resisted forced relocation and these are the home to 100,000 sacred First Nation sites. Fittingly, for the first time, a monument proclamation specified the inclusion of Native Americans as advisors and in a co-management role of the monument.
This area also happens to lie in San Juan County, the poorest in Utah and one of the poorest in the nation. With a Navajo reservation at its heart, as well as expansive BLM, Forest Service and state lands holdings, only eight percent of the county is private land. Local native and non-native residents of the county regard this designation as potentially impacting their survival and even driving them from a land upon which they depend.
To ignore the feelings and animosities that run justifiably deep around modern-day monument designations is to abbreviate story into propaganda and polemic.
The residents of Utah and their representatives, as well as federal land managers, tribal representatives and national environmental groups engaged in a long effort to bridge their differences. Within the scope of an ambitious land management plan for 18 million acres in Utah, called the Public Lands Initiative, they tried to secure greater protection for fragile and important landscapes, such as Bears Ears, while allowing others to be developed for gas and oil resources, providing jobs and tax revenues for surrounding communities.
The process was arduous, marked by both good and bad faith negotiations. Some participants rose to the occasion; others sabotaged it. In the end, the result was failure. The critical problem: in the three years of these negotiations, as new attention put a spotlight on the region, looting of Native American artifacts escalated.
President Obama stepped in and used the Antiquities Act as it was intended: to save lands of archeological, natural or historical significance when Congress fails to do so — when what is at risk is too great to squander.
This was followed by a presidential election. For the first time in our history, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Secretary of the Interior to review all National Monument designations since 1996 of over 100,000 acres and make recommendations with regard to possibly rescinding some or all.
The prospects of the Trump administration winning that legal argument in the courts seem dim at best. But, in this instance in particular, it would add yet another unnecessarily bitter twist to the tale.
The problems for local communities will not be redressed by rescinding the monument designation, and the dashed hopes of Native Americans will stand as a ruinous memorial, yet again, to our failure to deliver on our promises to them.
But transforming this story into a truly positive one for the area depends on all of us who petitioned for this monument: that includes leading sports, health and outdoor companies that supported the designation, environmental groups that urged it, and political leadership at all levels of governance. We do not save a place by leaving its people desperate and poor. That is not sufficient.
Tourism has been touted as the economic hope for the region. Right now, there are basically no amenities: no hotels, restaurants, signage, visitor centers. Low cost loans and funding need to be secured so that these communities can make necessary business and infrastructure investments and improve their lives accordingly.
But a robust rural economy is a diversified one. While the monument designation ended the potential for oil and gas drilling in the protected area that it encompasses; there are other potential areas on public lands elsewhere in the county, which should be explored in good faith for their potential.
The monument designation further promises that grazing and timber/medicinal plant gathering can continue, as well as hunting and fishing. Nonetheless, ranchers and Native Americans in the local communities express concern that those promises will not be kept, that more radical environmental groups will sue over grazing allotments or the timber gathering needed to heat homes and cook food. They worry that the federal government will find subtle ways to regulate them off these lands. So, those promises must also be stoutly kept, and any group seeking to abrogate them should be censored.
We don't defend these lands in the end with sanctimony or umbrage; we defend them with honor and inclusiveness. The history of these lands is painful; it is not glorious. It is one of promises made and betrayed. It is time for these lands to be the story of promises kept to all.
President Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the rest of us need to ensure that happens.
Theodore Roosevelt IV is an investment banker and a conservationist. He is the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act into law on June 8, 1906.