Obama’s Monuments: Legacy for Him, Hardship for Locals
Mass national monument designations hurt local economies, impact citizens' way of life
In December, President Obama designated two parcels of property spanning a total of 1.65 million acres in Utah and Nevada as national monuments. In doing so, he underscored his legacy as the president with the biggest penchant for the Antiquities Act of 1906.
How so? According to published statistics from the U.S. Department of Interior, Obama in his eight years of leadership declared almost 555 million acres as national monument property. The second-place finisher in this race for such land set-asides, President George W. Bush, designated less than half of that: 214 million acres. Jimmy Carter? The liberal from Georgia only declared 54 million.
“I’m 54 years old and I remember when I was five and doing those things. And now you can’t?”
Environmentalists may cheer; Democrats may applaud. But these land designations have real consequences for the land and business owners living in the shadow of federally managed monuments.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated in Utah the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a parcel that shocked in size at the time and outraged locals. Twenty years later, they’re still outraged — and fighting the economic consequences.
“In June 2016, we declared a state of emergency,” said Leland Pollock, chairman of the Garfield County Commission, whose community of 4,900 sits in monument territory. Why? School enrollment for seventh through 12th grades in the county dropped from 140 in 1996 to 51 in 2016.
"We just don't have an economy," Pollock said. "That is probably the best example of what these monuments do in terms of locals."
Pollock said monument supporters always say the designations bolster local tourism dollars. But the reality is tourism is seasonal and provides minimum wage positions, at best.
"Families are not going to move here for that," he said.
Residents in other previously designated national monument areas tell similar tales.
Monument supporters – the environmentalists, the Democrats, the land conservationist Republicans – often say the designations won't take away recreational uses and won't hamper access. But in Maine, where Obama in August named the 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument — despite widespread objection from locals — the land use restrictions on residents and tourists were immediate, and overnight.
"We got the phone call two days before the public announcement to close the ATV trails," said Brian Bronson, ATV coordinator for Parks & Lands in Maine. "The Park Service as a rule doesn't allow ATVs."
The closure affected 10 miles of trails. And even though there are roughly 6,000 miles more that are still accessible by ATV, Bronson said the impact can prove dramatic to locals.
"From a tourism standpoint," he said, "the through connections, the loss of them, that's just going to draw less tourists, and that means less hotel stays, less gas they buy for their ATVs. Businesses rely on ATV use for traffic."
Dennis Brackett, trail master for an ATV club in Patten, Maine, whose 119 members traversed the trails that are now off-limits due to the monument designation, said the Feds need to understand the concept of land protection may sound great on paper, but in reality, often creates economic hardships.
"An ATV that comes in, the people will buy gas, they'll utilize local restaurants, if they have a tire that blows, then they'll need someone local to patch it, some stay overnight in hotels," Brackett said. "The worst, though, right now, is maybe not knowing what's going to happen."
Brackett said since the Katahdin national monument designation, he's been hard-pressed to receive definite yeas or nays on his land-use questions. The problem, he said, is that National Park Service rules prohibit certain activities that have been ongoing on the monument land for decades — simple things, like picking up and selling deer antlers and moose horns the animals naturally shed, or gathering fiddleheads, ferns that grow in the wild that are popularly prepared as vegetables.
"We've done that for years, just go in and pick the fiddleheads," Brackett said. "But now, by National Park rules, you're not allowed to pick them up. So we don't know if we still can or not. We don't know if they're going to limit what we can pick, make it a quart at the most, or what. It might not seem a big change, but it is a big fear if you can't tell what's going to happen. I'm 54 years old and I remember when I was five and doing those things. And now you can't?"
These consequences will now be coming for Utah and Nevada, where Obama just declared 1.35 million acres as Bears Ears National Monument and 300,000 acres for Gold Butte National Monument, respectively.
"The designation was kind of a slap in the face," said Phil Lyman, the chairman of the San Juan County Commissioners, where Bears Ears now sits.
Only 8 percent of San Juan's property is privately owned, Lyman said.
"Yeah, we're pretty squeezed," he said. "It's hard to derive revenues off the property as it is to keep schools open, to keep the economy going."
That sounds ominously similar to what's been the experience of Grand Staircase Escalante dwellers, 20 years after their national monument came to town.