This past week in the news there has been an uproar about a couple of new federal monuments that have been created in Utah and Nevada, with a potential one in Oregon. For many folks who are unfamiliar with this process, there might be several questions about these monuments, such as what they are, how they are created and why so many people who live in the areas affected by these monuments are opposed to them?
To start with, these federal monuments are not statues or plaques, but rather areas of land already owned by the federal government. This land can become a monument by presidential decree through the use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was designed to protect archaeologically sensitive sites. Designating an area as a monument restricts further development to the area, and can create changes to how the area is used by both the people who live there and the public at large.
It’s important to note while there are archeological features in these monument areas that absolutely should be preserved, the monuments created cover millions of acres that have no archeological sites. The proposed site in Oregon covers 2 1/2 million acres, an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island and Delaware put together.
It is the size of these monuments and the changes in the land use by the people who live in the area that creates controversy. Despite the assumption these monuments are in empty land, the land is actively being used. A bit of it is used for mining or other mineral development, under the guidance of a federal permitting system. But essentially all of it is used for cattle grazing, under a permitting system administered through the Bureau of Land Management and/or the Forest Service.
Land administered by the BLM and the Forest Service is subject to regulation by these agencies, which in turn set their regulations based upon laws made by Congress. But when a monument is created, this can all change. For ranchers, this means that grazing can be reduced or completely eliminated. And the local population has absolutely no say in the matter.
Obviously decreasing the number of livestock in the area has a number of negative consequences. Contrary to the narrative, livestock grazing is an essential part of land management, as the cattle fill the niche that the buffalo previously did. It also depresses the local economy, as ranching is the lifeblood that keeps the stores on Main Street open.
Monument proponents (of whom the vast majority live far from the monument sites) counter that tourism makes up the difference in lost ranching income. But it doesn’t. Sure, a few more people visit the area, but spreading that tourism income across several families on several million acres is like throwing a single bucket of water on a house fire and hoping for that to do the job.
A national monuments doesn’t necessarily spell the end of ranching and local communities. It has happened, as evidenced by the Grand Canyon Staircase-Escalante Monument, but other areas have survived. The question that people that don’t live in the remote areas of the West need to ask is this: would you be comfortable knowing your job and hometown could be obliterated by a president’s signature?