You may not know this, but you (yes you!) are entitled to a lot of land out West. In fact, you are entitled to about eight-tenths of Nevada and two-thirds of Utah. Now don’t go hitching up that wagon just yet — it’s a little more complicated.
The various departments and services of the federal government own a lot of land out West: about 80 percent of the land in Nevada and about 67 percent of the land in Utah, for instance. As a citizen of the United States, that means that 67 percent of Utah is, technically, yours.
This land has various designations which bring with them certain rules about what you can or can’t do. For instance, there’s a lot you are NOT allowed to do at the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada managed by the Department of Defense, and relatively fewer restrictions in a national forest managed by the Department of the Interior.
Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s decision yesterday to remove land from two national monuments, Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, yesterday means there is a lot more that you are allowed to do on this land now that it is not part of a national monument.
This seems good. More freedom is always good, right?
To understand the potential pitfalls of removing land worthy of being a national monument from the protection of actually being a national monument, it helps to look at what happened to these types of places before they could be designated national monuments.
National monuments were created by Congress under the American Antiquities Act in 1906 and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt that year. The impetus was largely anthropological and archaeological: to protect and properly honor sites important to the history and/or culture of the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest.
Before this act, there were no rules governing these sites. Whoever got there first, or bought it first, had the final say in what happened to the land and what it housed.
In Southwestern Colorado sits one of the most fantastic examples of pre-Colombian settlements in the New World, and one of the most heartbreaking examples of pre-Antiquities Act destruction: Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace was built by the Puebloan people around the year 1200. With the decimation of American Indian societies and cultures post-1492, knowledge of the Cliff Palace drifted away into the ether. It wasn’t until the late 1800s, when Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason were tracking cattle in a remote canyon in southwestern Colorado, that the magnificent settlement was rediscovered.
Wetherill was not beset with the urge to study and understand the site. He began to loot and sell the irreplaceable artifacts within Cliff Palace. Tools and pieces of art created by a culture 500 years before him were sold away across the world to whomever would buy them, before anybody could learn what they had to say about the history of the American Southwest.
Gustav Erik Adolf Nordenskjold, a Swede, got word of what Wetherill found and traveled to the site to meet with him. Not to stop him from destroying the site, but to take what he could from the site and send it to Europe.
Most of the artifacts of the Cliff Palace are now housed in Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki. In 1896, the anthropologist Dr. J Walter Fewkes, who studied these sites and the people that built them, was alarmed at the haphazard destruction of these sites:
“Unless laws are enacted, either by states or by the general government, for their protection, at the close of the twentieth century many of the most interesting monuments of the prehistoric peoples of our Southwest will be little more than mounds of debris at the bases of the cliffs. A commercial spirit is leading to careless excavations for objects to sell, and walls are ruthlessly overthrown, buildings town down in hope of a few dollars’ gain”
Such is why national monuments were created. To protect these invaluable and irreplaceable resources for everyone, as best we can.
With Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s decision to shrink Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, we are again thrust back 100 years to rehash the same old argument.
Today it’s not artifact looters, but the sale of natural gas and oil leases. The times may have changed but the result will be the same: the loss of our collective history forever.
Kevin Keegan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UConn. He studies the systematics and biogeography of moths in the deserts of North America.