Last week, after a violent and deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia near the statue of Robert E. Lee, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend Confederate statues and monuments, arguing that by removing statues that are celebrated by neo-Nazis and the KKK, “you are changing history and culture.”
This week, however, the Trump administration is positioning itself to decide the fate of national parks and monuments that are embraced and celebrated by the vast majority of Americans, including national monuments that protect Native American history and culture.
On Thursday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is expected to give his recommendations regarding whether Trump should attempt to close or alter as many as 21 national monuments that protect Native American archaeological sites in the Southwest, marine life in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and other stunning American landscapes. The recommendations are the conclusion of a review Trump initiated in April that targeted 27 land and marine national monuments.
Any attempt by the Trump administration to close one or more of the national monuments they are reviewing will likely be met by a howl of public opposition; 98 percent of the record-breaking 2.8 million comments submitted to the Interior Department urged Zinke and Trump to leave America’s national monuments as they are. Analyses also indicate that shutting down a national monument would have a devastating impact on the local economies supported by public lands and waters.
“This administration is playing political games with some of America’s hardest working people and biggest contributors to the $887 billion-dollar recreation economy in this country,” Matt Keller, senior director of conservation at The Wilderness Society, wrote in a memo. “Trump is trying every trick in the book to give gifts to his friends in the extractive industry, selling out our natural and cultural wonders for short term profit.”
Despite receiving overwhelming public opposition to the idea of rolling back or eliminating national monuments, the Trump administration may still forge ahead in an effort to rally the same right-wing groups that cheered the president’s statements last week in defense of Confederate statues.
Some of the most outspoken opponents of protections for national monuments in the West, including the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, are anti-government militia groups and extremists whose racist ideologies are well-documented.
Cliven Bundy and his family, who famously staged an armed standoff in Nevada in 2014 and held an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, are the most recognizable leaders of this anti-government movement in the West. The Bundys’ chief objective for these occupations was to have public lands, like wildlife refuges and national monuments, handed over to state or private interests.
Cliven Bundy’s invitation to right-wing militias to take up arms against the federal government in Nevada in 2014 earned him a brief period of celebrity on Fox News, but a series of racist statements forced many mainstream conservative politicians to disavow him.
Still, Bundy and his sons persisted in their attempt to mobilize right-wing groups against the protection of public lands. In November of 2016, for example, Ryan Bundy, a son of Cliven and one of the leaders of the violent confrontation in Oregon earlier in the year, threatened the possibility of another standoff over what is now Gold Butte National Monument. The monument is 300,000 acres of what’s known as “Nevada’s Piece of the Grand Canyon,” a wild and vast landscape teeming with diverse species of reptiles and birds. After the designation of the monument was made, many of Bundy’s supporters’ social media posts skewed violent in response.
A similar dynamic has played out around Bears Ears National Monument, a tribally-supported monument in San Juan County Utah that protects 1.3 million acres and over 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites. During Zinke’s trip to “review” Bears Ears, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) stated that “the Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness. Just take my word for it.” Native American leaders who have been fighting for the protection of Bears Ears criticized Hatch’s comments as “offensive” and inaccurate.
“Native American people understand the special and sacred landscapes at Bears Ears National Monument better than anyone,” said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, in a statement after the event. “It is no surprise that Senator Hatch does not understand what he is working so hard to take away from us. If he would just listen to us he would stop fighting against what we stand for because it is not a threat to him or anyone else.”
Hatch’s comment was not unique; opponents of the protection of the Bears Ears National Monument have repeatedly tried to marginalize Native American voices through racist and revisionist accounts of history. In 2016 San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman told Native American advocates of the Bears Ears proposal that the tribes “lost the war” and had no right to comment on public lands issues. Another San Juan County Commissioner falsely claimed that “nobody really had settled” in the Bears Ears area before his white Mormon ancestors in 1879.
Secretary Zinke is expected to give formal recommendations to the White House on Thursday.
Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.