The Western United States may be the last natural bastion of what it means to be a free American. The image of the Old West brings a sense of beauty, with sky-scraping mountain ranges, deep valleys and endless desert and woods. The feeling of utter freedom is something one has to experience to understand.
That sense of beauty and utter freedom is purely American, and for me, also purely conservative. I first traipsed the romantic desolation of New Mexico as a Boy Scout long ago and came to understand the spiritual magnificence of the American West. It was an awakening.
What does it mean to be American? Abraham Lincoln said in his address to Congress in 1862: “A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability.” The United States as a nation may not always exist. The laws of the United States come and go as much as its presidents. But what the United States contains — the Redwood Forest, the Rocky Mountains, and even the national monuments President Trump might decide to shrink, like Bears Ears — is what will last long past our children’s children. Man-made monuments will have fallen, been torn down or been repaired five times over by the year 2100, but not our national parks. As Lincoln quoted the Book of Ecclesiastes in that same speech: “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.” The great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similarly: “Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments.”
All that is why conservatives like me find ourselves compelled to speak out against the Trump administration’s decision last month to shrink two national monuments originally established by Democratic presidents. (My public affairs firm, Shirley & Banister, has done work for the American Monuments Alliance, a group of conservative leaders who also oppose shrinking the monuments.) A Republican with close ties to the administration, Newt Gingrich, recently published an article in Fox News arguing that it borders on hysteria to criticize Trump’s move. The former House speaker wrote that “redefining the boundaries of these monuments will not harm the environment, open the flood gates for dangerous mining or natural resource exploitation.” Maybe. Yet Gingrich, in his 2005 book “Winning the Future,” had made the case that environmental beauty is indeed conservative: “I am a conservative who likes to walk in Central Park in New York and along the Chicago lakefront and along the Chattahoochee recreation area. We can give our children and grandchildren better environments in their lifetimes through reasonable foresight.”
The initial push to shrink these lands was largely due to energy corporations. Take, for example, Energy Fuel Resources, which lobbied the administration to shrink Bears Ears, Utah, by 85 percent, paying lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels tens of thousands of dollars in the process. (That firm’s head just so happens to be the nominee for deputy secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler.) The shrunken territory, as planned, has a high concentration of uranium mines — exactly what Energy Fuel Resources wants.
“The uranium deposits are outside the monument now,” Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert told The Washington Post last month — but that’s only because the parks have been shrunken. Extraction corporations already have access to 98 percent of the millions of acres under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. We are talking about setting aside a paltry 2 percent.
Lest we forget, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is already under some scrutiny for his stewardship of natural resources. His agency was just involved in a suspicious deal to revitalize Puerto Rico’s electrical industry after Hurricane Maria with a contract to a tiny company in Whitefish, Mont., Zinke’s hometown. No bid, naturally. Millions of dollars, of course. National Review recently battered him over the seediness of the arrangement, saying in their headline that it “stinks.” Whitefish Energy, National Review wrote, had “no real workforce, no experience in comparable government projects, and a job that is, by itself, about 300 times the firm’s reported revenue.” In 2017, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management sold hundreds of thousands of acres to companies, and the first half of 2018 could see nearly 1 million acres sold.
(To be clear, Zinke’s ethical questions go back to his days as a House member from Montana in 2014, when he created a leadership PAC that wound up with a $200,000 discrepancy in its accounting.)
Protecting natural beauty has long been a conservative priority. Ronald Reagan loved and lived in California. His ranch — Rancho del Cielo — meant everything to him. It was there he could take in the sparkling morning air, clear his thoughts and make decisions that changed the world. He wrote and spoke often about the ranch, even in his farewell address to the nation. Reagan’s favorite poet may have been Robert Service, a big, handsome man who wrote about the American West: “My lake adores my mountain …” Reagan’s ranch, high in the Santa Ynez, had mountains and a small lake.
Barry Goldwater loved and lived in Arizona. Both, giants among giants, saw the West and the landscapes as pinnacle Americana. Goldwater, in his immeasurably important work, “Conscience of a Conservative,” dedicated most of a chapter to the environment, writing that it is “our job is to prevent that lush orb known as the Earth … from turning into a bleak and barren, dirty brown planet.” Goldwater recognized that the environment took priority over what corporations and companies may want, and applauded President Richard M. Nixon’s war against polluters.
Goldwater was in many ways the father of 20th century political conservatism, and he had no greater disciple than Reagan. As president, Reagan called “the preservation of our environment … common sense.” He signed such preservation laws as the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in 1982, which forbade federal subsidies to new development in certain areas. He requested “one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency” to the EPA in 1984, saying that $157 million budget was for obtaining new lands to conserve.
The framers of the Constitution and Founding Founders would have realized, as most were farmers of their time, that turning the land into infertile soil — as Energy Fuel surely wants to do with the land it claws back from the monuments — would have been unnecessary. George Washington was a member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, and in his address to the Continental Congress in 1776, he asked “whether [Americans’] houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed” by the British. Centuries later, what was the work of a foreign army is now domestic business. Thomas Jefferson noted that Washington would “had rather be on his farm than to be made Emperor of the world.” Jefferson, the agrarian son of the Enlightenment, saw the Louisiana Purchase as not just doubling the size of the country, but doubling the size of the American aspiration to be free and unencumbered. Corporations, like governments, encumber human freedom.
According to a recent poll by the GOP firm of McLaughlin and Associates, 85 percent of Republicans want “more” monuments or wanted to keep them “as is.” Only 15 percent support reduction.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with the generations of Americans after them, looked to the West and saw immense natural beauty, and declared that it was Manifest Destiny for these ranges and valleys to be under the Stars and Stripes. If we were to shrink the monuments, we risk turning them into simply more oil fields and mining corporations.
As the great Enlightenment writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau said, “in nature is the preservation of the world.” In the preservation of the world is the preservation of the dignity and privacy of the private and free individual.