John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, served as counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
One way the American people get a glimpse into how American presidents see who we are as a nation — and, importantly, who they want us to be — is how they act as stewards of our country’s vast natural resources.
President Theodore Roosevelt preserved the Grand Canyon because in the rugged chasms carved by the Colorado River, he saw a landscape that echoed and nourished the wild character of a growing nation.
In creating the largest marine protected area in the world at the time — Papahanaumokuakea in the northwest Hawaiian Islands — President George W. Bush spoke of a moral call to conservation and a “duty to be good stewards of the Almighty’s creation.”
But where earlier presidents have shown respect for our past and commitment to our future, President Trump is displaying a stinginess of mind, a hollowness of spirit and a contempt for future generations.
Trump lashed out at communities — including Baltimore and Charlottesville — that have decided to remove 20th-century monuments erected to glorify the Confederacy, monuments that white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis are fighting with deadly force to preserve.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
But this week, the president made clear that “history and culture” worth protecting do not include the archeological sites that are sacred to Native Americans, the mountains where Geronimo and Billy the Kid took refuge, or the ocean canyons and coral reefs that are haunted by sharks and shipwrecks.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended Thursday that Trump scale back national monuments. Because the process has been mostly secretive, we do not know all the details. But based on reports of people briefed on the recommendations we know that, egged on by Trump, Zinke is proposing getting rid of large portions of national monuments in Utah and Oregon, and likely in California, New Mexico and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The administration is also pushing to allow logging in a national monument in Maine and commercial fishing in marine protected areas.
Trump and Zinke are pursuing the largest-ever elimination of protected areas in U.S. history and, in so doing, breaking the American promise that national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments are to be permanently protected for future generations.
It is hard to overstate the damage the Trump administration’s attack on national monuments would cause to cultural artifacts and to the local economies that depend on these protected public lands.
My wife and I visited the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in July and saw some of the estimated 100,000 archaeological sites that are etched in a landscape that is sacred ground to Native American tribes, including the Navajo, Zuni, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Hopi nations. Zinke reportedly wants nearly 90 percent of the Bears Ears National Monument to be eliminated, which amounts to removing protections of an area nearly the size of Delaware. This will put sacred sites at renewed risk of grave-robbing, looting, and destruction by drilling and mining activities.
Business owners in Las Cruces, N.M., are bracing for an economic hit if sections of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument are closed and visitors turn to other destinations for their hunting, fishing and hiking adventures. They are not alone — Taos, N.M.; Escalante, Utah; Ashland, Ore.; and communities across the West also stand to lose an edge in a fast-growing outdoor recreation economy that is now valued at $887 billion per year.
A handful of Utah politicians, right-wing militias (remember Cliven Bundy?) and the fossil fuel industry are surely cheering this assault on public lands. But in selling out our natural heritage, the administration is also ignoring more than 2.8 million public comments sent to the Interior Department, including the views of traditionally conservative hunters and anglers in the West.
Ultimately, these decisions are about more than just who is for and who is against; at their core they reflect our moral commitment to our children and their children. No previous president has thought it wise to chop up a national monument so that a few oil and gas companies can make a quick buck.
Imagine Ronald Reagan withdrawing protections for Natural Bridges in Utah. Or Bill Clinton selling off the Muir Woods. The very idea that a president would get rid of protections for places that unite and define us as a nation is simply un-American.
But evidently not in Trump’s eyes.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” conservationist John Muir said, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
The dissonance between his unprecedented attack on national monuments and his full-throated defense of Confederate statues is telling us too much about Trump’s soullessness and his chilling vision of who we are as a country.