Protecting Utah’s National Monuments Is Crucial to Utah’s Economy
by Olivia Smith
July 6, 2017
As Trump threatens our public lands, I can't help but think about how many people in the U.S. have a story about becoming connected to a national park or monument. For me, it was during my junior year of high school. After a tough year, I impulsively signed up for an exchange program in Utah. My first week there I went on a field trip to Zion National Park.
While hiking to one of the highest peaks, my feet started to blister from a bad choice in footwear. As I came to a much needed stop I finally caught sight of the long-promised view. A cynic through and through, even I couldn’t deny or downplay the stunning panorama centered right in front of me. Even though I was just slightly more than a five hour flight away from my bustling hometown of St. Petersburg, FL, I felt like I was on another planet. I visited Zion many more times over the course of my Utah stay, and it never came close to losing its effect on me.
For many people (especially younger children), it is not effective to learn about nature only from lectures in a classroom. Our national monuments and parks act as a living museum of thousands of years of both natural and cultural history and provide an oasis in a world full of mini-malls and Walmart Supercenters. And that doesn’t even include the financial benefits these places bring to their communities. Unfortunately, not all lawmakers see national parks and monuments as worthy of support.
Trump and his administration have shown that they could not care less about our country’s national parks and monuments. A recent executive order places the protective status of nearly 30 national monuments under review — which means putting them in jeopardy of being utilized by fossil fuel companies and other destructive industries. Incidentally, Trump’s administration has deep ties to fossil fuel companies. Two of the monuments under review — Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears — are neighbors of Zion National Park, where I learned first hand how truly impactful these types of places are.
Almost all proponents of the executive order are Republicans. Their argument for dismantling the protection of these monuments is that the status of the land blocks development and energy production. Just to reiterate, in this context, “energy production” is a less alarming way of saying fossil fuel extraction. Many of the Republican endorsers are climate change deniers. These deniers probably won’t be convinced using environmental arguments. On the other hand, something they do understand is profit and state revenue.
Utah’s most profitable industry is tourism, thanks to the types of places this executive order puts at risk. According to a 2017 research report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, travelers to Utah spent $8.17 billion in 2015. They contributed $1.15 billion in total state and local taxes. Taxes from tourism-related jobs added more than $100 million to Utah schools. Other tourism revenue goes to state services like transportation, health, human services,public safety, and economic development. That is the equivalent of every Utah household paying a bonus $1,235 to the state. A huge portion of the state’s recreational activity revolves around these parks and monuments, and it benefits the entire state.
It is thoroughly ironic that these Utah Republicans support Trump’s executive order. Their main argument seems to be that it is unfair that businesses cannot use the land to make money, but if Utah’s monuments lose protections — and the tourists stop coming — their state stands to lose billions of dollars in future revenue.
This issue is more than economics. If Trump successfully undermines these monuments’ protections to benefit his friends in the fossil fuel industry and other areas, this sets a dangerous precedent for all current and future protected areas. And it’s not just the environment and economics at stake in Utah. Bears Ears National Monument holds thousands of years of cultural history and sacred places for Southwest Indigenous tribes. According to the Inter-Tribal Coalition, “Protection of all these sacred sites is critically important to Native American people. Ongoing looting, grave robbing, vandalism, and destruction of cultural sites are acts that literally rob Native American people of spiritual connections, as well as a sense of place and history.”
Right now, the Department of the Interior is collecting public comments on the fate of 27 national monuments, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. Comments close on Monday, July 10, so let us all take action today!