Trump Rethinks America’s Best Idea

Nearly 98 percent of 2.4 million people surveyed told the government to leave our national monuments alone.

Giant sequoia trees are the largest living things by volume. (Courtesy photo)

As soon as President Trump signed his executive order in April to review 27 national monuments, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had his summer travel plans booked. Zinke would fish, kayak, and hike through our nation’s most beautiful landscapes to determine if they were better off being felled, drilled, or fracked. Six of the monuments set for review are in California: Berryessa Snow Mountain, Carrizo Plain, Giant Sequoia, Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and San Gabriel Mountains. But the Feds are not touching these Golden State treasures without a California-sized fight.

“This has been nothing short of a cynical assault on our country’s shared value of protecting our public lands,” Victoria Brandon, Chair of the Sierra Club’s Redwoods chapter, tells SF Weekly.  

Any reduction — or in some cases, elimination — of these nearby monuments would affect the Bay Area.

“Pediatricians and public-health professionals see these natural resources as vital public-health investments for our state and nation,” local pediatricians Nooshin Razani and Rachel Gilgoff wrote in a July 19 East Bay Times op-ed. “More than 100 academic articles have argued that humans need biodiversity and open spaces to maximize health.”

And the monument review comes by sea as well as by land. “The [Trump] administration has been thorough in its assault on marine protections, too,” says Sandy Ayelsworth, oceans advocate for the National Resource Defense Council.

Trump’s “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” ordered a review of the oil and gas potential for the outer continental shelf of the entire United States, according to Ayelsworth. In terms of where to drill, “nothing is off the table,” Ayelsworth says, “including Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific.”  

The Trump administration claimed the right to review monuments based on its own interpretation of the 1906 Antiquities Act. One line in that act, repeated several times in a June 30 letter from Congress signed by 17 Republicans, demanded that the monuments be “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”  

If the “objects to be protected” are trees or rivers or vast desert or mountain ecosystems, where does that “smallest area compatible with proper care” begin or end? (Cue John Muir’s “Everything is connected” refrain.)

Brandon disagrees with the Trump administration’s interpretation of that line on how the Antiquities Act has been abused or misinterpreted.

“It’s been used exactly how it was intended,” she says. “It has the ability to protect important resources even when Congress isn’t able to act.”  

A central campaign promise of Trump is job growth, so it could be that the president believes oil and gas jobs would flood the state if these monuments and marine sanctuaries lost their protections. His North Star — or Golden Calf, depending on your point of view — of 3 percent GDP growth may be guiding him. But 3 percent growth at any cost may reveal, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a man who understands the price of everything but the value of nothing.

“If you look at the data, it’s absolutely clear that marine protections have been a powerful economic driver of California,” Ayelsworth says. “Tourism and recreation always blow the economic benefits of gas and oil out of the water. Americans and international visitors flock to the California coast every year. They want to see sea lions and whales and go diving, and they stay in California hotels and eat at California restaurants to do just that.”  

These protected marine ecosystems also provide habitat for juvenile fish, which then mature and provide commerce for the Bay Area fishing industry.

“An oil spill in these protected areas would be devastating,” Ayelsworth says.

The review of California’s monuments has stumped local conservation experts. Dr. Eldridge Moores, U.C. Davis professor emeritus and a key advocate for the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument — which lies just 90 minutes north of San Francisco — says he has no idea why the monuments are under review.  He says any oil in Berryessa is mostly too deep, way below the fault line and not readily accessible to drilling.

Bob Schneider, co-founder of Tuleyome, a non-profit conservation group actively involved in California monuments, says it’s all about ideology. “This is a secret process with no clear criteria.”  

Defenders of the monuments are trying to turn this crisis into an opportunity by reminding the public why these monuments are so important. “This is landscape-level conservation to provide possible refuge for species by creating a high/low range,” Brandon says. In other words, if species have to move north because of global warming, these monuments will provide that refuge as they migrate. Links between these protected areas becomes even more important as increased animals are on the move because of global warming.

Schneider believes the monuments are valuable keys to understanding California’s past as well as protection against an increasingly warm future. “Climate change resiliency and connectivity are so important. We got a warning with the recent drought,” he says. Scientists were able to measure moisture deprivation in trees, how water columns in trees evaporated, and how the beetles came to bore through the weakened trees. “We can study that science in this area to understand what we might be up against in the future,” Schneider says.

And protecting the unique geology underneath all six of California’s monuments is significant for the Bay Area, too. These unique spots hold a history that hasn’t been completely understood, but if studied, could become a safety manual for fault lines and earthquakes.

“When you mine, you use up all this material,” Moores says. “And this material will never be replaced, because the animals that helped create this material are extinct.”

What’s most frustrating about this federal review to Schneider is that it takes precious time away from more important matters, such as updating fire-management practices in a year with record wildfires in California.  

“We’re definitely open to some logging to reduce the fuels and help with fire management in these monuments, but you just can’t simply reintroduce fire,” Schneider says. “It takes time and resources to study how to do that. We should be spending our time pushing bills that will fix firefighting techniques and upgrade forest-management plans instead of defending ourselves from arbitrary attacks made in secret.”

Zinke will make his recommendations to Trump by Aug. 24. (Although the public comment period for the monuments is closed, the public can comment on the marine sanctuaries until Aug. 15.) Let’s hope that, as he fishes and kayaks and hikes his way through our national monuments this summer, Zinke considers the future generations who might enjoy these activities, too.

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