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The Cruel Lottery to Save America’s Public Lands

President Donald Trump will protect your favorite national park, but only if it scores him votes.

A sign for Ryan Zinke, Trump's secretary of the interior until 2019 (George Frey/Getty Images)

Last week, the Trump administration revealed its $300 million plan to preserve the health of the Great Lakes. Two years ago, President Donald Trump threatened to slash the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) fund to $30 million. But Midwestern votes seem to have changed his mind: After being pleaded with by Michigan Republicans during a 20-minute car ride from the airport to a campaign rally in Grand Rapids this March, Trump reversed course on de-funding the GLRI and decided instead to fully fund the project. Trump’s narrow Michigan win proved vital in the 2016 election.

In 2017, shortly after taking office, Trump ordered the Department of the Interior to review all major land appropriations that have been made since 1996. Trump claimed that he would be looking into rolling back millions of acres that had been set aside for preservation to reverse what he termed a “massive federal land grab.” In that same breath, Trump belted that it was time to “return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.”

“The people,” in all of these instances, are not actual people, of course. But energy industry leaders have long wanted to drill and mine near these resource-rich, off-limits sites. As soon as Trump took office, he wasted little time filling his cabinet with men with career-long experience rolling back these protections.

The Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, the EPA—all of these federal agencies charged, in theory, with the protection of American natural resources and public land—are currently run by men who carry with them a long history of achieving the complete opposite. Acting BLM head William Perry Pendley was a property rights lawyer for years, referring to the BLM in a 2018 column as “the worst neighbor you can imagine.” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is notorious for keeping a list with all his conflicts of interest in the oil and gas industries. EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, worked as the chief counsel for Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, the dolt who brought a snowball to the Senate floor as proof that climate change is not a real crisis.

There are only a few ways these lands can be protected. One is through the formation of grassroots movements that grow powerful enough to impose political pressure on a strong contingency of congressional Democratic lawmakers who don’t get significant donations from energy companies, and who are willing to fight tooth-and-nail. For example, in the Southwest, Arizona and New Mexico congressional representatives like Raul Grijalva, Deb Haaland, and Ben Ray Luján, along with senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, championed the Native-led fight for Chaco Canyon. In April, the group of House representatives led a tour of the region; in May, Heinrich made the trip alongside Bernhardt, where they met with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Pueblo of Acoma Governor Brian Vallo. The result, though a temporary victory, was a one-year moratorium on any drilling leases within a ten-mile radius of the site.

Another way, as displayed by Trump’s turn on the Great Lakes, is to focus a bipartisan outrage campaign on a monumental national landmark in a swing state, and pray that the electoral calculus is enough to sway a petulant president. Past that, the only remaining hope lies with the courts, which are methodically being reshaped in Trump’s image.

The depressing reality is that finding success through any of these routes is becoming exceptionally difficult. Conservation efforts in the current moment increasingly rely on what feels like a roll of the dice. As pointed out by High Country News, the recreation industry, a group of powerful companies more invested in protecting public lands than many politicians are, can be equally shrewd in deciding which areas it wants to sink its resources into protecting: While the attempt to shrink Bears Ears resulted in a massive outcry, the fight to protect other culturally important areas, such as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along the U.S.-Mexico border or Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, have found far fewer champions.

The very system of federal protection for America’s public lands is built on a bloodied foundation. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the president, then Theodore Roosevelt, authority to unilaterally claim massive tracts of land and bodies of water as national resources deserving further protection. Roosevelt swiftly wielded that power, carving out roughly a million acres of land to protect from private industrialization. For decades, and even today, the Antiquities Act and the powers it imbued the president with to protect culturally important places have been revered by American conservationists and tribal citizens alike.

What these arguments routinely ignore is that much of this land should have never been the federal government’s to appropriate in the first place. The Antiquities Act was created and passed to ward off looters who were invading archaeological sites set up by non-Native academics in the Southwest; it was not created to protect tribal lands with the intention of returning them to the Native nations they belonged to rightfully. The same goes for the Organic Act of 1916, which gave Congress the right to create national parks. While Roosevelt is known as the father of our modern public lands system, he and his predecessors also established the practice of stealing (more) land from Native nations, an executive branch trend that extended until a brief break during the presidency of Richard Nixon, only to continue again after his departure into the twenty-first century.

The uncomfortable truth is that the entire reason America has a sprawling national parks and public lands system is because of the white supremacist intent that undergirded everything from the Manifest Destiny to the Termination Era. The Antiquities Act stood by the belief that these artifacts, and the land they were located on, should not be disturbed due to their value to American academia and American history. Now, in both tourism and progressive governance, there is money to be made and votes to be won by maintaining the rose-colored legacy of America treasuring and loving these natural wonders put there by a higher power for white settlers to discover.

As it stands, the only realistic political alternative to the federal government maintaining these stolen public lands is to turn them over to oil and gas and mining companies, industries that would sooner see them reshaped in the name of capitalism than in the name of preservation or environmental justice. A compromise sensitive to historical justice—returning the land that was stolen to the Native nations they belonged to for hundreds of years, with the remainder being protected by the federal system—feels a long way off, if it’s ever coming. In the meantime, until extraction industry veterans are uprooted from the DOI, BLM, EPA, and the White House, the presidential attention lottery is the only hope for America’s land. Here’s hoping your favorite park has the right zip code.