When Congressman Ryan Zinke was confirmed as secretary of the Interior, many people in Montana were intrigued to see someone from our own state in such an important leadership position. The secretary of the Interior is responsible for the stewardship of millions of acres of our nation’s public lands, including national monuments. It is an honor and sacred duty to future generations and our Creator.
To the dismay of many Montanans, one of the first assignments President Trump gave Secretary Zinke was to “review” whether and how to diminish or eliminate national monuments. Zinke took on the assignment with gusto, setting a bad precedent for his tenure and creating a negative impression for the people of Montana, as we are ardent lovers of our nation’s public lands.
Zinke made an August announcement that Montana’s national monument, the Missouri River Breaks, would not be harmed. Coming from Montana, Zinke has years of understanding behind him about how complex and deep our ties are to our public lands. I wondered if, by making the Montana announcement before other states, he was seeking comfort and affirmation from his home state. He did not get it. Rather, he received a strong push from many groups to protect all monuments. The way he framed the entire “review” process reveals he has an impoverished understanding of the value of protected public lands.
In August, I signed a letter to Zinke urging him to respond to a higher calling than President Trump: to God’s call. In the letter, we reminded Zinke that “national monuments have been thoughtfully crafted by U.S. presidents of both parties since the time of President Teddy Roosevelt, and each have left a powerful stewardship legacy. Now, you have an opportunity to do the same — to build and leave behind a stewardship legacy.”
Already, Zinke has published recommendations to diminish Bears Ears National Monument. His recommendations show blatant disregard for the wishes of the elected leaders of the Navajo, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni and Hopi tribes. There have been rumors he is likely considering making similar downsizing recommendations for other monuments. This is foolish, and if this administration fails to reverse course, it will be a lasting blemish on Trump and Zinke’s legacy.
It is much easier to tear down something you do not understand than it is to build something you cherish. I cannot imagine Secretary Zinke could possibly understand the nuances of the long, storied histories of the dozens of monuments the Trump administration put in jeopardy over the few short weeks since the review began.
Our national monuments conserve our nation’s natural, cultural and spiritual heritage for future generations. They should continue to do so, from generation to generation.
Rev. Dr. Dan Spencer is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and is ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ.