Tarnished Jewels, U.S.A.’s Public Lands Under Trump by Ian R. Mitchell

Ian R Mitchell, author of
Encounters in the American Mountain West, examines the
issues facing the USA’s public lands under Donald Trump’s presidency

MANY PEOPLE, both in the United States and abroad, view the country’s National Parks as the jewel in its somewhat tarnished environmental crown. Travelling through the USA – especially in the staggeringly beautiful Mountain West – through the uglification along the sides of the Interstates, with the brutal shopping malls, hideous advertising hoardings and the other detritus of American civilisation, one always breathed a sigh of relief when coming to a National Park. Until now…

An imperfect wildness

America’s National Parks were never perfect. National Parks pioneer John Muir argued that to persuade the great American public to buy into the idea of National Parks, economic activities would have to be allowed in the Parks, and access facilitated.

In some cases, indigenous populations were moved. Anyone
who has read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, describing Arches National Park in the late 1950s, will know that one of the Park Rangers’ jobs (until fairly recently) involved the extermination of cougars, rattlesnakes and other vermin that frightened the tourists. Roads were still being blasted in willy-nilly for years afterwards
to allow automobile access.

But with increasing environmental awareness over recent decades, no-one could deny that the National Parks were improving their practices. Wildlife conservation, and even species re-introduction, replaced the previous practice of extermination. The policy of road building has been curtailed, as has that of 4WD off-road driving, and attempts have been made to restore land scarred by such vehicles. The National Parks are among few places in the US where you will encounter environmental education, along with policies such as a ban on the sale of bottled water and drinking straws and other small but significant measures. In some parks, such as Zion, high-season use of cars is prohibited in favour of shuttle buses.

The US National Parks are owned and managed by the Federal Government in Washington, which dispenses the expenditure on conservation, employee wages and the rest, and retains Park entry charges as offset revenue. This does not cover total Park outlay and the rest is made up from federal subsidies through taxation, which covers the annual deficit of around $300 million – a tiny amount when compared to the tourist revenue brought to the USA by National Park visitors.

The vast bulk of Park users are from the heavily urbanised east and west coasts, but most of the Parks are in the sparsely populated interior of the USA, the so-called Fly Over States. There, many
of the population are not so happy, never have been, and have a long tradition of fighting against the establishment or extension
of National Parks, and against the restrictions they impose on activities often deemed sacred to the locals. When Clinton in the 1990s extended the area of the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, his effigy was burned in Utah. Vandalism against Park property and against Park employees is not unknown Out West.

National Parks and State Parks

There are also State Parks in most parts of the USA. These are the property of the local state, eg Utah or Arizona, rather than of the Federal Government. They vary from quite well run areas to fun parks in all but name. There are two ways in which they cannot be compared to National Parks. Firstly the standard of education and environmental policies is much lower; and secondly the State Parks are much more open to economic activity, such as mineral extraction and ranching, than are the National Parks. State Parks are also much more favourable to activities like hunting, off-road driving and other actually or potentially damaging practices.

It has long been a pipe dream of conservatives and business interests to turn the National Parks over to local, ie state, control, and fit them into the State Park portfolio and management system,

‘In the so-called Fly Over States, many people have a long tradition of fighting against the establishment or extension of National Parks’
which would facilitate greater economic exploitation of economic resources. Aware that the National Parks lose money, these people – generally from the Republican Party – argue that the Parks
could be profitable if they were open to economic development from mass commercial tourism, increased agricultural use and, importantly, mining. Covering their naked economic interest in the homespun platitudes so widespread in America, this is posed in terms of ‘returning control to local people‘, or ‘allowing traditional recreational activities‘, ie. hunting and off-road driving.

In Utah in 2012, the Governor Gary Herbert went a little further than pipe dreaming and, with the use or misuse of $500,000 of public funds, took a case to the Supreme Court demanding the return – or rather, handover – of Utah’s National Parks to state control. He knew that this was a waste of time and money, but he had started a jackrabbit from the grass about the use and ownership of public lands, hoping others would take up the chase. “Our State Parks do not run the maintenance deficits that occur with our National Parks,” he argued. “They are financially much more stable.” How this stability has been achieved was hinted at by the Salt Lake City newspaper the Desert News in December last year:

“Cracking pavement, faulty electrical wiring and dilapidated campgrounds. This year, Utah State Parks is celebrating its 60th anniversary. (…) wear and tear from decades of use is starting to show. Gov. Gary Herbert is proposing a budgetary fix in 2018 for Toadstool Hoodoo formation in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument some of the parks system’s more pressing ailments, recommending that $10.3 million in user-generated fees be directed for much-needed improvements.”

Enter Donald Trump

Trumpism got a lot of support in the US South West and Mountain West, areas of declining agricultural and mining interests, many
of whose locals were attracted to his ‘jobs before the environment’ policies. On coming to office, as well as withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change, Trump overturned Obama’s ban on the oil pipeline through the Native American lands at Standing Rock. He also issued the Transfer of Public Lands Act in March 2017, reversing Obama’s extension of protected designation in two areas of South Utah – Bears Ears and Escalante Grand Staircase National Monuments – areas which activists have been campaigning to be turned into full-scale National Parks. And he demanded a review of land use in all National Monuments over 10,000 acres.

Trump is trying to remove about 85% of Bears Ears and almost half of Escalante from protected status, using the language of ‘local democracy’, local recreation etc. Butthereismoretoitthanthat: the area of the Escalante Grand Staircase contains some of the largest known coal deposits in the world. Trump likes coal, and one of the first acts of his Secretary of the Interior was to end a moratorium on new leases for coal mining on public lands. In March this year 50,000 acres of public lands in South Utah were auctioned off to oil and gas interests.

Against these policies, organisations like the South Utah Wilderness Association point out that tourism in Utah, mainly outdoors-orientated, supports almost 150,000 jobs and brings in £8.4 billion in income a year to the state. In protest against Governor Herbert’s policies and his support for Trump’s, the Outdoor Retailers’ Association cancelled their February 2017 show – held in Salt Lake City for 20 years – costing the state $45 million in lost revenue. South Utah has become the front line in Trump’s war against the environment.

I do not belong to the group of hopefuls who think that, as Trump’s inanities, illogicalities and outright insanities become ever more evident, his supporters will turn against him; they supported him because of, not despite, what he says and does, and will continue to do so. It is more than likely that he will gain a second term in office and it is highly probable that in his overall time in office he and the Republicans will make a very serious attempt to end the National Park system as we currently know it.

As I write, the reversal of the protected designation for the National Monuments in southern Utah is being subject to legal challenge. It is not disputed that Presidential decree can create a National Monument; what is disputed is that such a decree can reverseanestablisheddesignation.Furtherdowntheline,thepart or wholesale transfer of the National Parks either to individual states, or to private hands, would require Congressional approval. This is the agenda of many seeking to increase opportunities for economic exploitation and to reduce the US budgetary deficit. If Trump wins on the issue of National Monuments, it is more likely that the status of the National Parks will then be under direct threat.

The National Monuments, specifically those in South Utah, are test cases. In many ways they are more valuable to outdoors people than the more heavily visited National Parks, as they contain far more actual wilderness area that is less visited and frequented than the more high-profile Parks. It is these wilderness areas that are seen by Trump, Herbert and others as wasteful and un-utilised. Will we see a future Trump Towers at Bears Ears?

‘It is highly probable that while Trump is in office,
he and the Republicans will make a serious attempt to end the National Park system as we currently know it’

Whether we like it or not, in the USA and elsewhere, our wild outdoor places are becoming increasingly politicised, and we should be willing and prepared to give all support in publicity and other forms of action to lovers of the outdoors who have the misfortune to be at present residents of Trumpland.

For more information, visit the website of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the only non-partisan, non-profit organisation working full time to defend Utah’s red rock wilderness. suwa.org


In the United States public lands are ultra-important as they are the only lands to which you have a legal right of access. No Trespassing signs mean just that. Depending on the state, landowners can use legal means, physical force and even
– under the so-called Castle Law in many states – kill a trespasser if they ‘feel threatened’.

Public lands come in many forms. There are federal (ie nationally owned) and state (locally-owned) lands. At the
top end of the scale are those administered by the National Parks Service (NPS): about 84 million acres. These lands are divided between the National Parks, which are mainly areas of outstanding scenic or geological significance (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Death Valley…) and National Monuments, which generally in addition contain significant historical, archeological or other values (eg. Bears Ears).
All these NPS lands are owned by the federal government
in Washington. Standards of conservation, leisure access and education are high.

Areas considered of ‘lesser’ scenic, historical or cultural value may come under the aegis of the Forestry Service (FS) or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Conservation and leisure standards are generally much lower in these lands. They are also owned by the federal government in Washington.

In addition there are State Parks, which are owned not by the national US Government, but by the individual states, eg Utah, Arizona, California, who manage them, collect and keep the revenue and oversee spending. With notable exceptions, standards of access, education and conservation are lower than in the National Parks, and they are generally much more open to commercial exploitation.

Ian R. Mitchell, June, 2018

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