After laying his eyes on the Grand Canyon for the first time, President Theodore Roosevelt began to envision what has become a proud American tradition of conservation. Roosevelt told a crowd that had gathered to see him near the canyon, “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is …keep it for your children, your children’s children…as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
Roosevelt made the Grand Canyon one of the first public lands to be permanently protected as a national monument by use of the Antiquities Act not long afterward. In the years since, presidents from both political parties have used their authority under the Antiquities Act to designate historically and scientifically significant public lands as national monuments.
Protecting wildlife as objects of scientific importance was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s clear purposes in declaring national monuments under the Antiquities Act. As one example, when designating Mount Olympus National Monument—now Olympic National Park—Roosevelt explicitly spelled out one major reason was to protect “the summer range and breeding grounds of the Olympic elk…a species peculiar to these mountains and rapidly decreasing in numbers.” We now know that subspecies of elk as Roosevelt elk, in his honor.
Later presidents rightly followed this precedent to support monument designations that protect important wildlife habitats throughout the nation. In the case of New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte, monument designations protected critical habitat for species such as mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. The designations for both monuments resulted in greater protection and improved public access to some of the best places in New Mexico to hunt and fish. In fact, some of my own favorite memories with my friends and family are from hiking, fishing, and hunting in these two beautiful national monuments.
I’ve been proud to work closely with countless New Mexicans, including sportsmen, who long recognized that Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks deserve monument protection. Both monument designations were the direct result of decades of public engagement that demonstrated overwhelming local support, and both have already proven to be major drivers for their local economies. Their designations preserved traditional land uses like grazing and hunting, and opened up new opportunities for recreation and scientific and archaeological discoveries.
Our current president would do well to learn from his predecessors and recognize that we have a moral responsibility as a nation to our children and all future generations of Americans to conserve our outdoor heritage. President Trump’s unprecedented, and likely illegal, executive order directing the Interior Department to consider shrinking or even erasing some of our national monuments from the map flies in the face of Teddy Roosevelt’s patriotic vision.
When he announced his executive order, President Trump parroted the same talking points that have been advanced by a small contingent of moneyed interests who would like to privatize or dispose of America’s national forests, conservation lands, and open spaces. That campaign to transfer or even sell off our shared lands should not be mistaken for the mainstream values of Westerners whose way of life depends on our region’s land and water.
For those of us who live in the American West, keeping our national monuments and public lands intact is not an abstract concept. Our public lands are places that everyone can access regardless of the size of our wallets. They are the places where generations of families have hunted, hiked, and learned about our history. If we lose protections for our public lands, these traditions will disappear as well as the billions of dollars of economic activity and millions of jobs supported by a thriving outdoor recreation industry.
Through my role on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I have repeatedly called on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to respect our national monuments and public lands in New Mexico. It would be devastating to pull the rug out from under the communities that have worked so hard to protect these places they love and revere.
Unfortunately, after Secretary Zinke visited New Mexico and saw the widespread community support for Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte, he still recommended changes to our monuments based on factual inaccuracies and a sham process aimed at meeting predetermined political conclusions rather than listening to local communities. In stark contrast to the rushed politically driven review by the Trump administration, local communities, sportsmen, Tribes, lawmakers and previous administrations spent years working to craft the most inclusive proposals possible.
There is still time for President Trump and Secretary Zinke to do the right thing. I will not stop fighting to protect our national monuments and public lands so the outdoor treasures owned by all of us will be there for future Americans to see. If we protect our public lands today, New Mexicans will enjoy the benefits of our watersheds, wildlife and wild lands for generations to come.