By DAVID QUAMMEN
DEC. 10, 2016
The New York Times
Credit JooHee Yoon
Bozeman, Mont. — The Statue of Liberty stands on a piece of federal land, but “federal” doesn’t mean it belongs to Washington. This piece of real estate, 15 precious acres known as Liberty Island, lies in Upper New York Bay just west of the state line between New York and New Jersey, but it doesn’t belong to New Jersey. Liberty Island is part of Statue of Liberty National Monument, created in increments by three American presidents (beginning with Calvin Coolidge in 1924) using their authority under the Antiquities Act. The National Park Service administers it, but it doesn’t belong to that agency. It belongs to a schoolteacher in Vermont, a coal miner in West Virginia, a waitress in Las Vegas, a tattooist in San Francisco, and to you, and to me, and to every other American citizen.
Liberty Island is public land.
Those facts are worth remembering now amid the postelection clamor about shrinking the federal government and — among other constrictions — its role in land stewardship. Sell off the federal lands, some critics urge, or give them away to the states! Unload, transfer to local control, privatize! The 2016 Republican platform instructs Congress to divest “certain federally controlled public lands” to the states, without specifying which lands, and to amend the Antiquities Act, giving Congress and the states veto power over designation of national monuments.
The loudest individual voice in this argument belongs to Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who recently called on Donald J. Trump to abolish national monuments (most notably, Grand Staircase-Escalante, in Utah) created by Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton.
Whether a president has the power to abolish a national monument that was declared by one of his predecessors is questionable. Legal scholars I’ve consulted say, not likely, though a final determination would happen in the courts. Whether this incoming president may want to try it is also uncertain. Back in January, Mr. Trump told Field & Stream magazine that he opposed divesting such holdings because “I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.” That particular resolve, if it holds firm, deserves our approval and support. Public lands under federal management, including not just national monuments but also national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges and other entities, deliver enormous value, of several sorts, to the communal and individual lives of Americans.
We pioneered this idea of protecting landscape for all the people. On March 1, 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone National Park, America’s first and the world’s first such place, “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Those words reflected the wisdom that all citizens have spiritual and recreational needs, as well as economic needs, and that access to open landscape helps feed the hungers of the soul.
Yellowstone back then was valued mainly for scenic spectacle — the geysers, the great river canyons, the waterfalls — and making it a public park was meant to compensate for some loss of scenic spectacles in the East. Niagara Falls, for instance, had been grotesquely commercialized by private operators, who turned the overlook areas into a circus of pricey amusements, and the founders of Yellowstone considered it a negative exemplum. This public park called Yellowstone would be different — and indeed, 144 years later, it still is. Few Americans would favor selling it to the Walt Disney Company for more hardheaded management.
Parks are only the most obvious, least controversial form of public lands. Yellowstone Park lies embedded in a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a larger zone of contiguous, wildish landscape, encompassing 10 times as much area as the park itself and including portions of five national forests, three national wildlife refuges, Grand Teton National Park and parcels administered by the Bureau of Land Management — all of that federal — as well as some state and private lands and part of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The park boundaries are unfenced, and wildlife flows back and forth across them.
Take away just the non-park federal lands from that geographical mosaic — which would be a horrendous hit to what Yellowstone is — and you would disrupt migration corridors, reduce winter range and otherwise subtract habitat from the elk, the pronghorns, the mule deer and other creatures that live their lives in and out of the park. You would severely jeopardize the survival of the Yellowstone grizzly bear. Yellowstone Park is big, relative to other national parks, but it’s too small to serve as a solitary ark for the fauna Americans go there to see.
National forests and national grasslands, managed by the United States Forest Service for multiple uses, amount to 193 million acres, mainly in the West. Besides offering timber for extraction and harboring wildlife, those watersheds supply fresh water to 66 million people. Those lands also provide outdoor recreation for hikers, hunters, fishermen, skiers and snowmobilers. (Proponents of divestiture should check with the National Rifle Association and the National Wildlife Federation to be reminded how hunters feel about public lands.) The Fish and Wildlife Service manages another 89 million acres within its refuges and other conservation areas. The Bureau of Land Management oversees 247 million acres, managed variously for grazing, minerals and energy extraction, and cultural and ecological values, and supporting about 375,000 jobs. Among the various economic benefits of public lands, outdoor recreation alone contributes $646 billion annually in consumer spending, and 6.1 million jobs. These are the tangibles.
The intangibles are important, too. Teddy Roosevelt, a great Republican president, understood that American landscapes had both tested and nurtured our uniquely American spirit, stubborn as it is, and that any citizen might find joy or solace in a day, or a night, spent outdoors. That’s why he signed the Antiquities Act, in 1906, and used it to designate 15 national monuments, including Devils Tower, Muir Woods and one at the Grand Canyon, which later became a national park.
In the 11 decades since, other presidents and their administrations have designated more than 140 additional national monuments and national historic landmarks, ranging from Admiralty Island in Alaska to Yucca House, a Pueblo archaeological site in Colorado, to Fort Matanzas in Florida. African Burial Ground National Monument preserves a small site, on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan, where 15,000 African people, mostly enslaved, some free, were buried during colonial times. It was protected in 2006, under custodianship of the National Park Service, by declaration of President George W. Bush.
I spoke recently with Will Rogers (good name for an American sage), the C.E.O. of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that helps protect great public landscapes and create parks, even small parks, closer to where children live. “Our democracy is bound up in these places,” he told me, then added, “I hope.”
We should all share that hope. Public lands are part of our fabric of connectedness in this country; through our common ownership and appreciation of them, we are vested in one another, state to state, region to region, hunter to schoolteacher to tattooist to nation. They help unite us. God knows we need that right now.
David Quammen is the author, most recently, of “Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart.”