Monumental Controversy: Exploring the National-Monuments Debate

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Teague Hatfield says public lands have made Bend, Oregon, what it is. “The reason we’ve gone from 32,000 people to 80,000 people in the last 20 years is because of the fact that we’re a recreational mecca,” says the owner of the local FootZone running store.

“That and beer,” he adds after a beat.

Bend’s story will be familiar to residents of many small and medium-size towns in scenic locales across the West. Outdoor amenities—trail systems, ski slopes, raftable rapids and the like—draw tourists as well as entrepreneurs and knowledge-economy workers, which all gradually accretes into a diverse and vibrant local economy.

Public lands—especially protected tracts, like wilderness areas and national parks—form the foundation of that economy.

“There are a lot of examples of tech industries that have relocated to Bend,” Hatfield says. “A lot of those are lifestyle-driven choices, whether it’s single-person operations or small firms.”

The majestic peaks to the west of Bend, the sweeping desert to its east—it’s hard to imagine such sublime and imposing landscapes ever changing.

Paradise Imperiled?

But, despite their importance to places like Bend—and to trail runners the world over—public lands occupy a contentious place in our politics. To Hatfield, those public lands’ continued existence is more tenuous than it might seem.

“I believe strongly that if we don’t protect the things that are just invaluable in our Western landscapes,” he says, “that those things can and will be taken away from us.”

Recent years have seen a renewed push by some—though by no means all—Republican politicians to reduce the federal government’s role in land stewardship. Utah lawmakers have led the way in advocating for a “transfer” of federal holdings to state or local governments, a move opponents say would result in a massive sell-off due to those agencies’ inability to manage the lands. Meanwhile, recent national-monument designations have come under fire.

Keeping public lands public, and wild lands wild, may seem like a no-brainer. Outdoor-industry entrepreneurs like Hatfield see the economic benefits public lands provide. And trail runners who spend their days exploring national-forest singletrack know the intrinsic value of accessible open spaces.

But that perspective is not universal. Some factions in the rural West have sincere concerns about federal management. More importantly, they distrust the very intentions of bureaucrats, environmentalists and outdoor-industry groups.

Related: No Free Lunch, Trail Running and the Public-Lands Debate

Historically Contested

Federal-land management has been controversial for as long as the federal government has managed land. Through most of the 19th century, public lands were simply as-yet-unclaimed parcels awaiting settlement or development.

That began to change in the latter half of the century. Congress granted Yosemite Valley to the state of California in 1864, on the condition that it remain a (mostly) undeveloped park. As the wilderness historian Roderick Frazier Nash writes, “The legal preservation of part of the public domain for scenic and recreational values created a significant precedent.”

Eight years later, Congress set aside “a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River” as the country’s first national park, protecting its “timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, [and] wonders.”

Those early acts of preservation were not without controversy. “The best thing the Government could do with the Yellowstone National Park,” a Kansas senator declared in 1883, “is to survey it and sell it as other public lands are sold.”

A decade later, the creation of the first “forest reserves”—later to become national forests—withdrew still more acreage from the survey-and-sell pool. Wilderness advocates, like the writer John Muir, hoped the reserves would remain untouched. But in the end, adherents of so-called “wise-use” conservation—the idea that forests should be harvested sustainably, rather than logged destructively—prevailed.

However, by the mid-20th century, the preservationist movement had gained steam, helped along by the growth in outdoor recreation. After decades of piecemeal protections—a national park or monument here, a “primitive area” designation there—a raft of legislation in the 1960s and 1970s redefined federal land-management priorities.

The 1964 Wilderness Act famously created a national system of protected areas in which “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Other acts created a parallel arrangement for undeveloped rivers; established a system of national recreation, scenic and historic trails; required environmental assessments of federal decision making; and codified the multiple-use mandates under which the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management balance resource development and grazing with recreation and preservation.

By the late 1970s, though, shifting federal priorities had sparked a backlash in some parts of the West—the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.

“Not Just Randomly Managed”

Malheur County, Oregon, lies 200 miles southwest of Bend. It’s sagebrush country, literally and figuratively.

The landscape of deep volcanic-rock canyons is known as the Owyhee Canyonlands. Writing in this magazine in September 2016, ultrarunner Jeff Browning called it “an untamed chunk of the American West larger than Yellowstone.”

Though largely federal land, the area lacks official protection. Worried about mining or other development, conservation groups—including the Oregon Natural Desert Association, on whose board Hatfield serves—sought to change that by advocating for a national-monument designation.

The 1906 Antiquities Act empowers the president to unilaterally protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on public land as national monuments.

Though prompted by concerns over discrete archaeological sites, the language allowed for a broader interpretation. President Theodore Roosevelt established the precedent of using the Antiquities Act to protect whole landscapes when, in 1908, he created the 800,000-acre Grand Canyon National Monument.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton created the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Local officials opposed it vociferously. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called it “the mother of all land grabs.”

Part of the problem was procedural. The Clinton administration deliberated and decided in secret, without public input—a process even some monument supporters took issue with.

But it also affirmed a suspicion, deeply held in parts of the West, of a heavy-handed federal government that didn’t have the best interests of local communities at heart. In this case, opponents could even point to a tangible example—a planned coal mine, expected to create hundreds of jobs, that the monument effectively shut down.

Grand Staircase-Escalante remains a touchstone in monument debates—including in the Owyhee.

In a March 2016 nonbinding resolution, 90 percent of Malheur County voters opposed a national-monument designation. One of those opponents was local rancher Elias Eiguren.

“The history of national monuments has not been good,” he says. “Ones on this scale that affect the management of this size of a landscape have not been good to local communities.”

Eiguren grazes his cattle on BLM land that abuts his ranch, and local residents pitch in to fight fires and noxious weeds on public lands. He worries the added restrictions of a national monument could hamper that work, and have impacts on the local agriculture economy.

“The land out here, it’s not just randomly managed,” he says. He and his neighbors are “stewards of the land with dirt under our fingernails and doing the work every day here.”

In fact, national-monument designations are less restrictive than wilderness, for one. Recent monuments have tended to allow continued grazing, and the proclamation establishing Bears Ears National Monument states that the designation won’t have an impact on “emergency response activities within the monument, including wildland fire response.”

Moreover, protected public lands are generally a boon to a regional economy—whether in Bend or Malheur. Though every place is unique, rural Western counties with more protected federal lands generally outpace their peers in key economic indicators, according to research from Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan institute.

Another Headwaters study found no evidence that 17 national monuments designated between 1982 and 2001—including Grand Staircase-Escalante—impeded economic growth in nearby communities. And, unlike in the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante, the Obama administration conducted lengthy public processes before issuing its decisions

But that’s kind of beside the point. Federal assurances and economic data won’t sway someone from a deeply felt truth. And in the case of monument opponents like Eiguren, it seems the mistrust is profound.

“Whatever happens to be written into [a monument] designation is what the land has to be managed for, and nobody knows what that is going to be until the president makes a decree, basically,” he says. “We don’t have an opportunity to have any say in that. It’s really a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of approach.”

Public Lands: a brief history

1862: Homestead Act promises 160 acres of federal land to each Western settler.

1864: Yosemite Valley is granted to California, on the condition it remain a public park. (The valley later returns to federal ownership as part of Yosemite National Park.)

1868: John Muir arrives in San Francisco. Over the next several decades, his writings popularize the notion of wilderness.

1872: Congress designates Yellowstone the country’s first national park, stipulating that it be “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground” and that its “timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, [and] wonders” be protected.

1891: The first federal “forest reserves” (later renamed national forests) are created. Wilderness enthusiasts like Muir and proponents of “wise use”—scientific, sustainable forestry—disagree on how they should be managed.

1905: U.S. Forest Service is established.

1906: Antiquities Act authorizes the president to preserve archaeological, historical or otherwise significant sites as national monuments.

1916: National Park Service is established.

1934: Taylor Grazing Act establishes the basis for grazing regulations on public lands.

1937: The Appalachian Trail, first proposed in 1921, is completed. Federal protection as a national scenic trail comes in 1968.

1946: Bureau of Land Management is established.

1960s-’70s: A wave of environmental legislation establishes multiple-use mandates for the Forest Service and BLM; creates national systems for preserving wilderness and wild rivers; and requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their decisions, among other things.

Late 1970s: Changing land-use laws spark a backlash among some in the West—the so-called “Sagebrush Rebels”—who call for greater local autonomy in land-management decisions.

1980: Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act creates over 100-million acres of national parks, preserves and forests in the state, including 56-million acres of wilderness.

1996: Bill Clinton creates Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

2016: Barack Obama creates Bears Ears National Monument in Utah (see page 44).

Paul Cuno-Booth is a newspaper reporter and freelance writer living in Keene, New Hampshire.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada