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Chris Honoré: Of talismanic significance and breathtaking beauty

I have this image that with the election of Donald Trump, environmentalists from coast to coast tried to absorb what his presidency would mean to our planet, to the conservation movement. Many I’m sure were haunted by the question: Did 63 million Americans actually vote for a man who, contrary to all scientific data, has declared global warming a hoax? How is it possible for people looking at the same world to hold such disparate views of reality? Yet, there it is.

Take, for example, our view of our public lands, those vast stretches of wilderness created by presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt when, in 1906, Congress enacted the Antiquities Act which allowed him to create one of his most lasting conservation legacies — 18 federally protected monuments totaling some 230 million acres. Whatever the resources under the ground — coal or oil or precious metals — all were perceived as places to be treasured, their natural,breathtaking beauty to be left to those generations who will follow.

That belief has withstood the test of time and countless challenges. But administration after administration has refused to yield. In fact, some presidents expanded monuments that had been already created.

But then there was 2016 and the election of an individual who viewed these monuments not for what they were intended to be but as acres to be exploited. If there was oil, well, let the drilling begin. If there was coal, mine it. His rationale was that these monuments represented the federal government’s “overreach.”

Clearly he framed his election as a mandate. He had not pandered from those podiums as he told all who would listen that to make America Great Again we should extract the extractable.

And so, when sworn into office he appointed Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior and charged him with reviewing all those national monuments of more than 100,000 acres, limited to acreage that was designated after January 1, 1996.

Targeted for a critical evaluation were Grand Staircase-Escalante, comprising 1.9 million acres, and Bears Ears, a 1.35 million-acre monument created by President Obama just prior to leaving office. Both are in Utah.

After consulting with Zinke, Trump ordered the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante by 800,000 acres and Bears Ears by 1.1 million acres using what he considers his unilateral authority as chief executive. It was a stunning reduction, regarded as unthinkable if not intolerable by Native Americans as well as conservationists.

The question regarding Trump’s authority now resides with the courts, testing the question of whether the president does indeed have the ability to undo what has been done under the Antiquities Act by former presidents. Or does that power only reside with Congress?

Zinke also recommended to Trump that the Southern Oregon monument, called the Cascade-Siskiyou, be reduced; by how much has yet to be determined.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared she will sue if the president attempts to withdraw the full protection of this monument.

Should the president prevail in court, it would in fact render the Antiquities Act meaningless. Lands protected by one president could be rendered unprotected — and open to exploitation — by the next president.

Only Congress can establish irrevocably that this act can not be revoked but remain into perpetuity, meaning that public lands such as Bears Ears or the Grand Staircase-Escalante or the Cascade-Siskiyou monuments can never be diminished, irrespective of their extractable wealth. Congress will likely be given an opportunity to affirm what has been, since 1906, the intent of the Antiquities Act. That is to say that there are some places on land and in the ocean that must for all time be inviolable, protected, acknowledged for what they are: part of the public’s heritage.

Tangentially: Congress recently voted to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last pristine places in North America. The New York Times described it as an area “full of wildlife, of talismanic significance to environmentalists and Native Americans. But doesn’t that define, in some way, all of our national monuments?

— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.