Public Lands

Dakota Jones writes about the 2017 public-lands debate.

By on December 13, 2017 | Comments

On December 4, President Trump announced at the Utah State Capitol that he was going to substantially reduce the size of three national monuments: Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Oregon Cascade-Siskiyou. He based this action on a host of perceived slights to American democracy, with the basic premise being that the monuments represent “an egregious use of government power” and they prohibit people living near the monuments from taking advantage of economic potential in terms of oil, gas, and mining exploration. As he spoke, thousands of people stood outside the capitol protesting the reduction, while environmental groups gathered around the country to plan their responses. Similarly, some groups in places like Blanding, Utah–just outside of Bears Ears National Monument–stood with signs supporting the administration’s reduction. This controversy is only the latest in over a century of debate about how best to make use of American public lands, but it has the potential to have some of the farthest-reaching consequences of any legal battle ever fought on the issue.

Public lands are a tremendous part of America’s character. According to the Wilderness Society: “America’s federal public lands… cover almost a million square miles, or 618 million acres, more than 25% of the U.S. land base.” The concept of protecting public lands began in earnest in 1872 with the protection of Yellowstone as “a great national park or pleasure-ground.”

Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President from 1901 to 1909, and Gifford Pinchot, the U.S. Forest Service’s first Chief, are often given the most credit for giving form to the conservation movement. They incubated an idea that would be carefully considered and developed over the next century: some landscapes must be withheld from profit-driven development. They wanted to trade instancy for longevity. Pinchot’s primary goal was to conserve forest resources so they could be efficiently put to human use. Specifically, he wanted to prevent Americans from deforesting the whole continent because he believed he could use scientific principles to make forest resources last for generations. This legacy is still a primary driver of public-lands policy, as anyone can read on the welcome signs upon entering a national forest: “Welcome to your national forest, land of many uses.”

Eventually this led to the distinction between conservation and preservation. The National Park Service defines the difference as thus: “…conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use.” Pinchot was a staunch conservationist, which meant he was motivated by how to make the best use of wild lands. He is the reason that Roosevelt transferred the U.S. Forest Service from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot saw forests as a resource to be managed and controlled for the human use. Later on, the preservationists countered that the land should be protected simply so that it can exist untouched. They believe some natural places must remain intact as a way to sustain the complex web of ecosystems that supports all life on earth. This sentiment reached a peak in 1964 with the Wilderness Act, which set aside land as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

It’s important to understand that wilderness areas–as defined by the 1964 act–can only be created by an act of the United States Congress. A large part of the debate about Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is that they were created through the use of the Antiquities Act (by Presidents Clinton and Obama respectively), which is a Roosevelt-era executive motion that grants presidents the power to create national monuments without approval from either of the two other branches of government. It’s not as simple as the president drawing some lines on a map and calling it a monument; he or she needs to have a plan vetted through several bureaucratic steps that ensure that monuments meet the requirements of the Antiquities Act. At the end of 2016, then-President Obama actually reduced the size of the proposal he was given by a substantial amount in order to comply with the requirement that monuments “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Yet once the proposal is on the president’s desk, he can act overnight. The apparent caprice of this action grieves opponents deeply.

It’s worth understanding that monuments cost the government money. Even after eight years of a Democratic president trying to support social systems like the National Park Service, which administers most national monuments (though not Grand Staircase, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management), that organization is still overworked and underfunded. New proposed tax cuts have the potential to greatly exacerbate this issue. Wilderness areas cost only a fraction of the money as monuments to maintain. Some may counter that they cost money in terms of the loss of extraction profits and taxes, but those of that mindset should understand that Bears Ears National Monument allows existing grazing and even some oil and gas leases to remain in place. Grand Staircase preserved existing grazing permits as well. They simply prohibit further such development. And many environmental groups and outdoor brands claim the economic benefits of tourism (including hunting, fishing, and running) to monuments like Bears Ears are much larger and far more sustainable than oil and gas and mining. According to the Durango Telegraph:

“…more than 98 percent of the record-breaking 2.7 million public comments received during the Interior’s comment period expressed support for maintaining or expanding monuments. Patagonia also referred to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report that found outdoor recreation contributes 7.6 million jobs and $887 billion annually [to the U.S. economy], far outpacing the jobs and spending generated by oil and gas. The company also cited Wilderness Society data that 90 percent of U.S. public lands are open to oil and gas leasing and development while only 10 percent are protected for recreation, conservation, and wildlife.” (“Monumental disappointment,” December 7, 2017).

Bears Ears has become a focal point of the public-lands controversy. It was created with–and will be managed in part by–a coalition of five Native American tribes who traditionally lived in the land now protected by the monument, and because of this human heritage combined with its extraordinary geological and biological diversity, Bears Ears now represents the fight for all public lands. But Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are both rich in fossil-fuel resources, and the extractive potential of these now-off-limits areas has oil and gas and mining companies cheering the reductions.

There is a lot to say about the beauty and value of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. I expect most readers of iRunFar are familiar with these places at least peripherally as areas of outstanding natural beauty, huge distances, solitude, and tens of thousands of archaeological sites. We cannot allow these monuments to be reduced in size. As noted above, their economic potential as monuments is far greater than if they are utilized by extractive industries. There is overwhelming public support for the monuments–more than 98 percent!–and still there will be no shortage of areas where extractive industries can do their work. The administration is acting against the wishes of the American people and even against its own interests. There are undeniably more jobs in the tourism industry than in oil and gas.

But beyond that, I believe some places deserve to exist in their natural state, that there is intrinsic value to having places that “exist where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” as the Wilderness Act articulates.

The reason this decision is so important is because it’s about far more than just three monuments. The American judicial system puts heavy emphasis on precedent, meaning one decision can influence dozens of others. And while monuments have been reduced before, their reductions have never been challenged in court. That means whatever decision the courts ultimately make on this issue will have a massive influence on future decisions. According to the New York Times:

“If Mr. Trump’s legal challengers win in court, the decision could affirm future presidents’ rights to use the Antiquities Act to extend protection to large areas of public land, and cement the monuments’ current boundaries.

But if they lose, Mr. Trump and future presidents could drastically shrink any of the dozens of monuments created by their predecessors, opening the formerly protected terrain for all kinds of development.” (“Trumps Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments,” December 4, 2017)

The debate about the fairness of the Antiquities Act is valid and should be continued. But it is nevertheless a law and deserves to be respected as such. And this law allows far-sighted presidents to preserve places that took millions of years to become unique from being altered and destroyed by extractive industries in just a few years. Outdoor groups need to take more responsibility for the negative environmental impacts that uncontrolled tourism can have, but those impacts are as nothing when compared with industries like oil and gas and mining. The administration’s actions have forced this difficult conversation upon all of us. It’s up to us as a nation to confront this problem and decide where our values lie.

As mountain runners, this is our time to stand up for the things we believe in. Public lands are our greatest American heritage, and we can no longer take them for granted. We deserve the right to protect and explore our public lands as runners and to pass on the values they represent to our children. Wild places are trail running’s soul, and without public lands our sport will lose its greatest asset. This is an issue that will affect us economically, morally, and personally, and its results will have historic consequences, for better or worse. You have more power than you know to save these places from development. This is the time to make your voice heard.


Immediately after the administration’s announcement, several groups sued or pledged to sue various government agencies and/or officials on the decision. Included at the bottom is a short list of groups working to ensure that the monuments remain protected. You can also make a difference as individuals with the following:

  1. Educate yourselves. Read what the organizations below have to say on the subject and then search online for news about the monument reductions. Several of the below organizations send out periodical newsletters keeping their members informed of current events. They will keep you informed of opportunities to write letters, sign petitions, join in demonstrations, and other actions.
  2. Donate. If you have the ability, please consider donating to one or several of these organizations so that they can continue their work in education, outreach, and (especially in this case) litigation.
  3. Call your representatives. One of the best things you can do is call your senators and congressmen/women to tell them about how important public-lands protections are to you. They keep track of the calls they receive and the positions of each caller. If they don’t hear from you, they will certainly hear from the oil and gas industry.
  4. Get outside. Remind yourself why you care about these places. Make sure to get outside and enjoy the places you love so that you’ll never forget why they are worth fighting for.


Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you describe the tangible and intangible value that public lands have to you as a trail runner and human being in general?
  • Do you currently trail run on national-monument land? If so, which one and can you describe what the experience is like?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.