The noisy political attack on new national monuments. We have heard the same now for 130 years

The recent designation of Bears Ear National Monument in southern Utah by President Obama engendered a predictable storm of rhetorical protest from Utah’s politicians. Yet a review of their comments and those made historically by western politicians when earlier Presidents had unilaterally created public reserves shows surprisingly consistent responses.

In 1887, two weeks before leaving office, Democratic President Grover Cleveland after losing his bid for re-election to Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison, set aside 20 million acres of western lands as “forest reserves.” Republicans were offended that a “discredited leader” of a party that had suffered defeat in national elections two months before could unilaterally create new reserves on public lands.

Reaction to President Grover Cleveland’s 1887 decision to create forest reserves (precursors to our national forests) in western states resulted in similar local outrage and calls to repeal the new reserves.  In one historic account of events, the author claims that “in every case…these political spokesmen claimed they spoke for the people of the West. Their solicitude for the settler was in party hypocritical, insofar as they sought to use individual entry and claim to public lands for the enlargement of their own special interests.”

For instance, Senator Wilson of Washington characterized the proclamation as a “ghastly mistake” and “dasterdly blunder”. He called it a “violation of all rights without notice to anyone.”

Senator Petticrew of South Dakota denounced the order as contrary to law and called for the entire revocation of it.

Senator Carter of Montana asserted that Cleveland’s declaration of forest reserves demonstrates a “contemptuous disregard” for people’s interest and called for a suspension pending an investigation.

Senator White from California characterized the creation of forest reserves as “oppressive and ridiculous in the extreme.”

Senator Rawlins of Utah declared that President Clevelands declaration of forest reserves was “as gross an outrage as that of William the Conqueror in setting aside his hunting reserve.”

That was then, and this is what we hear now.

Val Dalton, a San Juan County rancher with grazing allotments within the monument declared: “I don’t know why anybody would want to lock up all the resources in this country so that we can’t use them, and that’s what they’re doing.”

Utah Governor Gary Herbert said: “As outraged as many people are with today’s decision, we know how to challenge this action appropriately through the many administrative, legal and legislative avenues available to us. We will aggressively pursue these options”  Herbert went on to say: “President Obama has shown little regard for the input of every elected official in Utah who represents this area. I am hopeful that this unfortunate decision made in the final weeks of an outgoing president will be dramatically improved in the first weeks of our incoming president.”

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes gave his two cents: “Adding to a long list of executive actions that threaten the sovereignty of the states and the citizens of this nation to chart their own course, our president has chosen to once again subvert the will of the people…This action betrays the interests of Utahns, stands in the way of better stewardship of the land we all love and cherish and ultimately amounts to a blatant federal land grab.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee asserted: “This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand. I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation.”

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz characterized Obama’s monument declaration “disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise.”

Finally, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch predictably said: “With this astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power, President Obama has shown that far-left special interest groups matter more to him than the people who have lived on and cared for Utah’s lands for generations. For Utahns in general, and for those in San Juan County this is an affront of epic proportions and an attack on an entire way of life.”

One can find similar local outrage over the past national monument designation of other Presidents. Local opposition to the creation of many of our current national parks which were originally protected through the Antiquities Act and Presidential declaration include Grand Canyon, Grand Teton (called Jackson Hole NM), Acadia, Olympic, Death Valley, Kenai Fjords, Glacier Bay, and many other beloved landscapes in the West, including a number of national parks in Utah, including Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon.

I suspect if one queried Utah residents about whether they are “outraged” and “dismayed” by the “oppressive” 1887 Presidential creation of national forest reserves in Utah, most would admit they are pleased that Utah has national forests today as well as former national monuments now national parks like Zion, Bryce and Arches.

In every instance, time has proven that local people and their political representatives were on the “wrong side of history”. I am certain that if President Obama’s declaration of Bears Ear National Monument withstands the attacks by Utah’s delegation and the Trump administration, future generations of Utahans will wonder how anyone could be so foolish as to oppose protecting such outstanding and unique a natural and cultural landscape.







  1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Right on, brother George! The designation of the Bears Ears is a lifebuoy thrown to the towns of Monticello, Blanding, Bluff, Mexican Hat and Hanksville, all of which I have visited many times over the years and all of which have perpetually struggled for economic survival. The citizens of these towns should be grateful for the monumental gift and anxious to take advantage of it. Instead, they act as if the land was stolen from them. Yet, ironically, they have no sympathy at all for the Native Americans that their own ancestors stole it from. Hatch, Bishop et al. don’t just exploit their fear and mistrust and desperation, they make use of herd mentality to cause much of it. That is really despicable.

    1. josh Sutherland Avatar
      josh Sutherland

      Life buoy? You mean the part time seasonal jobs that pay $10 an hour. I bet the residents cant wait to raise families on that!! 🙂 Those towns will wither and die, and all that will remain is a few businesses to service the summer tourists.

      Look at Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase etc. Just seasonal part time jobs, with a few business that crank during the summer. In fact in the area where the Grand Staircase resides they are shutting the High School down. They are LOVING the economic boon..

      1. Rich Avatar

        Tell me Josh – what industry was providing those folks with high paying year around employment in that area before the monument designations swooped in and took away those jobs? Contrary to rumors you might have heard Microsoft did not have a huge campus in Bluff, Monticello, or Blanding. However once sleepy Moab is now a very lively and profitable tourist destination. Have you ever been to the canyonlands and 4 corners area to check out the high paying job opportunities there?

  2. Bob Brister Avatar
    Bob Brister

    Stay tuned for the fight over the monument management plan.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It’s amazing that even to this day how little concern and respect some people have for the culture of Native Americans, and the ‘right to’ their native lands, sacred places, and artifacts! These cultures are outstandingly beautiful.

    One thing I will say for this Administration and the Interior Department is more consideration being given to native peoples, and trying to return their stolen and culturally and spiritually important works:

  4. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    Having lived and traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean, it is shocking to see the economic cultural and environmental degradation when random development
    You might be tempted to look at cruise ship enterprises in the same way that resource extraction is in the west

    Once invasive short term gain is used as s development model tbe area looses value
    Witness st Thomas st Maarten even Tortola now
    Cheap hotels abound
    Beaches are full of half empty hotels
    Locals no longer own their land they are taxi drivers and sellers of trinkets
    Some island radically limited development and cruise ship entry
    Anguilla for example remained wealthy
    Few trinket palaces
    Extraordinary beauty
    Tbe people largely still own their land
    Culture is intact
    The island is exclusive and expensive

    It’s a question to ponder
    Why don’t our progressive politicians refine their messages to illustrate how our policies help and also reflect on what we need to do to counter the misinformation and lies that create the phenomenon of people voting against their own best interests being sold to the public.

  5. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    Hard to type on cell phone
    Excuse typos etc
    Happy new year
    And thank you George for another thoughtful essay

  6. monty Avatar

    Years ago when the satellite crashed in east Texas killing the crew, teams of volunteers, including myself, spent two weeks looking for the debris. East Texas is mostly private land. My point is that the land that we covered was replete with private trash. So much for “Texas pride” of owning your own land.

  7. Louise kane Avatar
    Louise kane

    While we were sleeping, along with the vote to make it easier to dismantle the ACA, the house republicans voted on a rules package that includes the ability ho sell off or give federal lands away without accounting for the cost
    In simple terms it still has to Pass the senate but zinke voted for this grossly unanerican rules despite his public stance on protecting public lands from transfer
    Congress members especially the GOP become more reprehensible daily. Want to know why Paul Ryan is so happy all his extremist right wing dreams are coming true at the expense of the public he professes to serve
    Top of the list transfer of public land
    I don’t know who is more toxic Ryan who knows better or trump who doesn’t care to

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner