The war between the world of climbers and Donald Trump is still in full swing. Following the executive order signed by the U.S. president placıng all 27 national monuments declared since 1997 under review, protests in the U.S. have all but subsided. So much so that a formation of climbers with the likes of Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Conrad Anker and Sasha DiGiulian, together with representatives of the American Alpine Club (AAC) and the Access Fund have gone straight to Washington and made their arguments heard in the Senate. And yet, despite the unanimous choir of protests from the entire outdoors industry, Trump appears unwilling to go back on his steps. And so the battle goes on.
It is not only Bears Ears at risk. We have already spoken about the fear that the last national monument, declared by Barack Obama right in the last days of his presidency, could be scrapped. But by the end of April, Trump and his secretary for internal affairs, Ryan Zinke, have decided that all monuments established since 1996 should be reviewed. Why? Officially because in many of these sites, like Bears Ears, there are opportunities to build roads and infrastructure. Whereas in others it is about exploiting the existing natural resources. But some observers of the White House policies have claimed that it all started with Bears Ears, which Trump wanted to scrap in order to spite Barack Obama who established it, and has since been carried away by the advice of his strategist, Steve Bannon. It is possible, but what really matters is that there are now 27 protected areas at risk. From a legal standpoint, it is still unclear whether Trump can abolish them, while from a political one he will need to evaluate the effects this will have on his electorate and beyond. Already today protests are alive and are increasing in intensity day by day. Not just in Utah or in Wyoming. Also in Washington, where ongoing protest marches have been planned well into July. Protecting public lands, preserving natural areas, safeguarding wilderness. These are the motivations that have pushed and will push thousands of Americans to express their dismay to Trump.
To further understand the issue, we need to first take a step back. In the U.S., there are various ways to protect the environment and natural areas. The two best known are the National Parks, managed by the National Park Service (NPS), and the National Monuments, which can be managed by the NPS, or by the United States Forest Service, by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of by the Bureau of Land Management. The main difference between the two statuses is that a National Park is established by Congress, while a National Monument is established directly by the President. The reason is found in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, with the Antiquities Act, Roosevelt decided to protect the areas of native Americans from the race to exploit their natural resources, such as precious metals, coal or oil. He did so to preserve areas of “scientific interest”, and in fact decided to establish as the first National Monument the Devils Towers in Wyoming by virtue of their geological interest. The same motivation goes for the Grand Canyon, which became a National Monument in 1908 and then a National Park in 1919 under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. This was because a National Monument is not excluded from becoming a National Park. But the opposite is very improbable as there is no legal precedent. The same could be said about the abolition of a National Monument. As of now, it is not contemplated by any norm so in practice there is no law on the matter.
Trump’s point, according to what his aides have to say, is very simple. In many areas currently protected there are natural resources that can be extracted. So, in order to create jobs, it is necessary to go beyond environmentalism and the status of national monuments. And also because, as he declared over and over again during the presidential campaign, his program called for giving back jobs to workers in the mining and oil sector, who lost them following Obama’s turn towards a green economy.
And this is why the executive order was signed at the end of April. The problem is that such a measure, scrapping the latest national monuments in order to jumpstart the economy of those areas, risks having unforeseen economic consequences. Since the outdoor industry is valued at roughly $887 billion a year (data for the whole of 2016), according to the Outdoor Industry Association, the repercussions on the sector could be significant. The outdoor sector guarantees 7.6 million jobs (construction industry only reaches 6.4 million for example), $65.3 billion in federal taxes and $59.2 in state and local taxes. Numbers that need to be added to those relating to tourism. Because a national monument is not only synonymous with outdoors activities, but also and mainly with tourism. That is, hotels, restaurants, camping sites and recreational areas, which all contribute to the U.S. revenue, both in the form of federal and state taxes as well as in the form of employment. Trump’s move could then be a boomerang. Firstly, because outdoor is a growing industry (revenue was calculated at $646 billion in 2011), and increasingly sustainable. Secondly, because there is no evidence that taking away jobs from the outdoor sector these would be balanced with the creation of jobs in the energy sector. Especially if one considers the increasingly diminishing need to depend on non-renewable sources.
And so this is why the whole sector has reawakened. And has decided to protest the latest moves by the White House. The same can be said about climbers. According to estimates by the Access Fund, 60% of areas where trad and competitive climbing can be practiced fall within national parks and monuments. Hence, the “Climb the Hill” initiative of May 11. In a rainy Washington, the executives of the AAC and the Access Fund testified in the Senate. And with them were also Conrad Anker, Tommy Caldwell, Sasha DiGiulian, Alex Honnold, Kai Lightner and Libby Sauter. They explained why it is useful to preserve the existing natural areas. Not just for climbing or hiking. As they pointed out, it is a question of principle. It is imperative to protect these areas from anthropisation in order to safeguard them for future generations. And also because, in the spirit that moved John Muir, national parks are the greatest American idea. Since they could not count on marvels such as the Colosseum or the Parthenon, Americans, in the middle of the civil war, decided that it was necessary to start a discussion on how to protect areas of significant natural importance. 1872 saw the creation of the first park, in Yellowstone, thanks to president Ulysses S. Grant. All the way to the 59 national parks existing today, and the 87 national monuments. A heritage that is not just the domain of excursionists and climbers, but of all lovers of wilderness which Americans deeply care about.
Not all is lost. As Zinke said a few days ago, “it is clear we need to first listen to all the local communities before taking any decision on the national monuments”. The hope is that initiatives such as those promoted by the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund may contribute to trigger constructive protests in favor of the preservation of the existing national monuments. And it is to this end that the Access Fund has decided to launch an awareness campaign to protect Bears Ears, asking all those who are passionate about mountains and climbing to write to Zinke. There is time until May 26 to join. We believe it is important to do so. Because, as John Muir wrote “O-one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” And today more than ever we are in dire need of it.