How Should We Use our Public Lands?

To the Teacher:

In December 2017, President Trump announced a decision to dramatically scale back two national land monuments in Utah. His action takes some two million acres out of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, representing the largest reversal of national monument protections in U.S. history. Predictably, this move caused public concern, particularly among environmental groups and Native Americans who believe that the removal of protections will result in the exploitation of public land. Several groups began challenging the decision in court.

President Trump’s announcement is only the latest in a decades-long debate over the use and designation of public lands in the United States. America’s federal public lands cover well over 600 million acres, or almost a million square miles, and are owned equally by all Americans. Debates over the use of this land have been bubbling since before the creation of the first “public lands” in 1872. Trump’s decision to shrink public lands is part of a larger plan that he outlined during his campaign to open some public lands for fossil fuel development and sell other land to private owners.

This lesson is divided into two readings. The first reading considers President Trump’s announcement to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah. The second reading explores wider questions about how public lands in the United States are used, including the extractoin of fossil fuels from public lands.

Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading One:
President Trump Shrinks National Monuments

A 2017 Gallup poll that found that 53% of Americans oppose opening public lands up for oil and gas exploration and development. However, such action is popular among many conservatives. In April 2017, after taking office as president, Donald Trump ordered a review by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of federally protected lands to see which could be recommended for exploration by oil and gas companies.

Then, on December 4, 2017, President Trump announced a decision to dramatically scale back two national land monuments in Utah. His action takes some 2 million acres out of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, representing the largest reversal of national monument protections in U.S. history. Predictably, this move caused public concern, particularly among environmental groups and Native Americans who believe that removing this protection will result in the exploitation of public land. Several groups have begun challenging the decision in court.

In a December 5, 2017, article for Vox, reporter Brian Resnick described President Trump’s announcement and outlined the response from environmentalists and local Native American tribes:

The Bears Ears monument — which was designated by President Barack Obama in one of his last acts in office — stands to lose 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent, of its land area, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument will be reduced by 800,000 acres, or 45 percent. The rollback is the first step to opening up these lands to more development and agriculture. The proposal breaks Bears Ears into two separate monuments and Grand Staircase-Escalante into three.

“Some people think the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” Trump said in Utah’s capital Monday, in a speech announcing the changes. “They’re wrong.” The move, he said, is to “to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.”

But he also nodded toward economic interests, saying that federal oversight has led to “unnecessary restrictions on hunting, ranching, and responsible economic development.”

The five Native American tribes on this land — the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian, and the Pueblo of Zuni — have joined together in a lawsuit arguing that the president of the United States does not have the power to decrease the size of national monuments such as these. Brian Resnick continues:

Trump, in his announcement about the changes, claimed they would benefit Native Americans. “We’ve seen how this tragic [federal] overreach has prevented many Native Americans from having a voice on their sacred lands, where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions,” Trump said. Never mind the fact that the tribes were the ones that had, for years, been asking the Obama administration for the monument protections.

A separate lawsuit — filed by 10 environmental groups, including EarthJustice, the Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council — makes a similar argument, but for the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument.

The result of these lawsuits will set precedent. And as it stands, there’s never been a ruling on whether a president can decrease the size of a national monument. “If this unprecedented and unlawful action is allowed to stand, the 129 national monuments across the United States will be at risk,” the Native American tribes write in their lawsuit.

The Antiquities Act, the law that was used to create the two national monuments, provides a backdrop for the debate about public lands in Utah and beyond. The Antiquities Act was signed in 1906 by President Teddy Roosevelt. The primary purpose of the act was to protect Native American artifacts on public lands from being stolen or desecrated. The act also gave presidents the ability to create national monuments without congressional approval. NPR reporter Kirk Siegler wrote about the legal standoff surrounding the act in a December 5, 2017, article:

Here in Utah, where about two-thirds of the entire state is federally owned and there are seven large monuments, the [Antiquities Act] is a household name, and in some rural areas, a dirty word.

"I've become an expert in monuments," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the Utah Capitol on Monday. "And the Antiquities Act was never intended to prevent, it was intended to protect."

When the administration began its controversial review of 27 large monuments, including Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, it said the act needed to be tested.

Tribes and conservationists have been preparing lawsuits for months. "There is nothing in the Antiquities Act that authoizes a president to modify a national monument once it's been designated," says Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation, one of the tribes that is suing the administration.

The tribes point to a federal lands law from the 1970s that says only Congress can actually reduce or nullify a national monument.

While other presidents have modified the boundaries of national monuments using the Antiquities Act, never before has one proposed a cut of the magnitude of Trump’s reduction of the monuments in Utah. The president has justified the move by arguing that the Antiquities Act does not justify federal control of such large areas. NPR reporter Siegler continues:

"It was more about control than it was about protection," says San Juan County Commission Chair Bruce Adams. He's ecstatic that President Trump is trying to shrink monuments across the rural West. He says these designations take everything off the table, like expanding cattle grazing or mining.

Trump, he says, "listened to the local people, even though they weren't millions of voters, only 15,000 people in our community. He understands what rural communities are about."

Those in favor of reducing the size of national monuments maintain that the federal government created them without consulting local people. Republicans and fossil fuel developers argue that by designating these areas as national monuments, the federal government took away the right to use the land for economic development. Much of that development, they contend, could come from oil and gas production. Environmentalists disagree, as reporter Mark Hand explained in an April 26, 2017, article in Think Progress:

Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told ThinkProgress that the amount of oil and gas reserves in the Bears Ears National Monument area is minimal, and that only occasional uranium exploration takes place there.

“The idea that the designation of the monument in December somehow stifles all of this economic potential doesn’t add up,” she said. “This is an extremely ideological fight being waged by the Trump administration and the Utah delegation. The fact is these lands belong to all Americans. In the case of Utah, they never belonged to Utah.”

Given that President Trump ordered the review of 27 national monuments in April, this issue is likely to continue to resurface. Proposals to reduce the size of monuments in Nevada and Oregon may be next—and would be sure to generate legal challenges.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. What is President Trump’s argument for shrinking the two national monuments? Based on what you know, do you agree or disagree? Why?
  3. How have Native Americans and environmentalist groups responded to President Trump’s announcement?
  4. Under the law, the public lands in question belong to all Americans. Do you think that people living close to particular public lands should have greater say in what happens on those lands than Americans who live far away? Why or why not?
  5. Several different groups mentioned in the article express different visions for how public lands should be used. How do you think the interests of ranchers, environmentalists, Native Americans, and the general public should be balanced? Should some interests take priority over others? Explain your argument.



Reading Two:
Protection or Development for Our Public Land?

President Trump’s recent announcement to shrink two national monuments in Utah is only the latest in a decades-long debate over the use of public lands in the United States. America’s federal public lands cover well over 600 million acres, or almost a million square miles, and are owned equally by all Americans. Environmental historian Adam Sowards describes the events leading up to the creation of the first public lands in the U.S. in his entry on public lands and their administration in the American History Oxford Research Encyclopedia:

For more than a century after the republic’s founding in the 1780s, American law reflected the ideal that the commons—the public domain—should be turned into private property. As Americans became concerned about resource scarcity, waste, and monopolies at the end of the 19th century, reform-minded bureaucrats and scientists convinced Congress to maintain in perpetuity some of the nation’s land as public. This shift offered a measure of protection and an alternative to private property regimes.

The federal agencies that primarily manage these lands today—U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management—have worked since their origins in the early decades of the 20th century to fulfill their diverse, competing, evolving missions. Meanwhile, the public and Congress have continually demanded new and different goals as the land itself has functioned and responded in interdependent ways.

In the mid-20th century, the agencies intensified their management, hoping they could satisfy the rising—and often conflicting—demands American citizens placed on the public lands. This intensification often worsened public lands’ ecology and increased political conflict, resulting in a series of new laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws strengthened the role of science and the public in influencing agency practices while providing more opportunities for litigation.

Predictably, since the late 1970s, these developments have polarized public lands’ politics. The economies, but also the identities, of many Americans remain entwined with the public lands, making political standoffs—over endangered species, oil production, privatizing land, and more—common and increasingly intractable.

Public land uses range from recreation, to grazing, and to mining, logging, and drilling for oil and gas. Various lands classified under assorted designations—ranging from national parks, to national monuments, to national preserves, to national forests—receive differing levels of protection around whether the land can be used by the fossil fuel, forestry, or agricultural industries.

Differences over how to use public lands often fall along political party lines. Public policy fellow John Freemuth and public administration graduate student Mackenzie Case from Boise State University outlined the differences between Democrats and Republicans on public land use policy in an October 13, 2016, article for The Conversation:

The disagreements between Democratic and Republican candidates in the past seem to have centered more on what level of government – state, federal or perhaps even county or local – should manage the public lands and for what purpose, rather than suggestions that the land be sold. It was President Reagan, for example, who boldly stated, “Count me in as a rebel” in support of the 1970s “Sagebrush Rebellion,” thereby championing the idea of ceding federal control to states or at least policies that tilted heavily toward resource extraction.

By contrast, Democrats have solidly branded themselves as pro-public lands, particularly by supporting values associated with wildlife and habitat conservation and by promoting land use by sportsmen and women, outdoor recreation and for renewable energy.

Hillary Clinton’s policy positions echo the DNC’s platform of “keeping public lands public” which we’ve seen under the Obama administration. Her platform positions are centered on collaborative stewardship of those lands and suggest federal public lands remain federal….

The GOP party platform, meanwhile, embraces values of deregulation, expanded resource extraction and increased state control.

Republicans generally favor expanded access for fossil fuel development. Consistent with this stance, President Trump has moved quickly to allow increased and easier energy development on public lands. In a December 8, 2017, article for The Nation, reporter Adam Federman described how President Trump is taking steps to expand fossil fuel extraction on lands that were once federally protected:

Seeking to expand domestic energy production, the Trump administration is rapidly opening up tens of thousands of acres of public lands that were once considered off limits to energy production. President Trump’s recent move to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments has attracted considerable attention, but those are not the only sensitive lands at stake. On December 12, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will auction off more than 66,000 acres in Utah for oil and gas drilling, including parcels very close to Dinosaur National Monument. Several potential drilling sites further south along the Green River will also be auctioned, including one on the edge of a wildlife refuge that provides critical habitat to the razorback sucker, one of four endangered fish species in the Upper Colorado River basin. So important is this stretch of river that the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended pulling the parcel from the sale because it is “essential for the species’ recovery.”

In its push to expand energy development, the Bureau of Land Management’s state offices are eviscerating the processes that allowed for development while protecting environmentally vulnerable and valuable lands. Most notably, BLM is abandoning long-term management plans known officially as Master Leasing Plans, which are designed to balance development and conservation across some of the nation’s most cherished landscapes. An ambitious plan to speed up the leasing process, outlined in an October report from the Department of the Interior, is beginning to guide decision-making. Environmental impact assessments are being short-circuited and standard interagency consultations disrupted….

BLM’s efforts to open up more land to oil-and-gas development are not confined to Utah. This month, across the West and into the far reaches of Alaska, the Department of the Interior will sell leases for massive tracts, including nearly 400,000 acres in Nevada, a state that industry has traditionally expressed little interest in exploring. “Now that there’s been a changing of the guard,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, “the BLM, in my view, has gone to the ends of the earth to try and make these leases available.”

Given that the current administration has moved aggressively to prioritize the interests of industry in its use of public lands, groups including environmentalists and Native American advocates argue that the public interest is not being well served.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. The reading argues that Democrats and Republicans typically favor different management policies for public lands. How would you characterize each party’s position? What set of interests does each group tend to prioritize?
  3. President Trump has stated that he will auction off public lands and will make application processes easier for drilling and mining on public lands that remain. What do you think of this move? What are some arguments in favor of or against this action?
  4. Some environmentalists argue that even Democrats often are too lenient in compromising with the fossil fuel industry, rather than holding a hard line to protect public land from further exploitation. Part of their argument is that the majority of land in the U.S. is already privately owned and that government should be cautious steward of the portions that remain under public control. What do you think of this argument?
  5. What public lands are closest to where you live? Is there controversy over how these lands should be used? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, how might you find out?


Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner