The Western United States may be the last natural bastion of what it means to be a free American. The image of the Old West brings a sense of beauty, with sky-scraping mountain ranges, deep valleys and endless desert and woods. The feeling of utter freedom is something one must experience to understand.
That sense of beauty and utter freedom is purely American, and for me, purely conservative. I first traipsed the romantic desolation of New Mexico as a Boy Scout long ago and came to understand the spiritual magnificence of the American West. It was an awakening.
What does it mean to be American? Abraham Lincoln said in his 1862 address to Congress: “A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability.” The United States as a nation may not always exist; its laws come and go, as do its presidents. But what it — the redwood forests, the Rocky Mountains, the national monuments President Donald Trump might decide to shrink, like Bears Ears — will last long past our children’s children. Man-made monuments will have fallen or been torn down or repaired five times over by the year 2100, but not our national parks. As Lincoln quoted the Book of Ecclesiastes in that same address: “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.” Similarly, the great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne stated, “Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments.”
All that is why conservatives like me find ourselves compelled to speak out against the Trump administration’s decision last month to shrink two national monuments originally established by Democratic presidents. (My public affairs firm, Shirley & Banister, has done work for the American Monuments Alliance, a group of conservative leaders who also oppose shrinking the monuments.)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently published an article in Fox News arguing that it borders on hysteria to criticize Trump’s move and saying that “redefining the boundaries of these monuments will not harm the environment, open the flood gates for dangerous mining or natural resource exploitation.” Maybe. Yet Gingrich, in his 2005 book “Winning the Future,” had made the case that environmental beauty is indeed conservative: “I am a conservative who likes to walk in Central Park in New York and along the Chicago lakefront and along the Chattahoochee recreation area. We can give our children and grandchildren better environments in their lifetimes through reasonable foresight.”
The initial push to shrink these lands was largely due to energy corporations. Take, for example, Energy Fuel Resources, which lobbied the administration to shrink Bears Ears, Utah, by 85 percent, paying tens of thousands of dollars in the process to the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels — whose head just happens to be the nominee for deputy secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler. The shrunken territory, as planned, has a high concentration of uranium mines — exactly what Energy Fuel Resources wants.
“The uranium deposits are outside the monument now,” Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told The Washington Post last month — but that’s only because the parks have been shrunken. Extraction corporations already have access to 98 percent of the millions of acres under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. We are talking about setting aside another paltry 2 percent.
What do Republicans think?
In 2017, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management sold hundreds of thousands of acres to companies, and the first half of 2018 could see nearly 1 million acres sold. Meanwhile, a recent poll by the GOP firm of McLaughlin and Associates shows that 85 percent of Republicans want “more” monuments or want to keep them “as is.” Only 15 percent support reduction.
Lest we forget, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is already under some scrutiny for his stewardship of natural resources. His agency was just involved in a suspicious deal to revitalize Puerto Rico’s electrical industry after Hurricane Maria with a contract to a tiny company in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. No bid, naturally. Millions of dollars, of course. National Review recently battered him over the seediness of the arrangement, saying Whitefish Energy had “no real workforce, no experience in comparable government projects and a job that is, by itself, about 300 times the firm’s reported revenue.”
(Zinke’s ethical questions go back to 2014 when as a Montana representative he created a leadership PAC that wound up with a $200,000 discrepancy in its accounting.)
Protecting natural beauty had long been a conservative priority. Ronald Reagan loved and lived in California. At his ranch, Rancho del Cielo, he could take in the sparkling morning air, clear his thoughts and make decisions that changed the world. He wrote and spoke often about the ranch, even in his farewell address to the nation.
Goldwater and the Earth
Barry Goldwater loved and lived in Arizona. In his immeasurably important work, “Conscience of a Conservative,” he dedicated most of a chapter to the environment, writing that “our job is to prevent that lush orb known as the Earth . . . from turning into a bleak and barren, dirty brown planet.” Goldwater recognized that the environment took priority over what corporations and companies may want, and applauded President Richard M. Nixon’s war against polluters.
Goldwater was in many ways the father of 20th century political conservatism, and he had no greater disciple than Reagan, who as president called “the preservation of our environment . . . common sense.” Reagan signed such preservation laws as the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in 1982, which forbade federal subsidies to new development in certain areas. He requested “one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency” for the EPA in 1984, saying that $157 million budget was for obtaining new lands to conserve.
The framers of the Constitution and the Founding Founders, as most were farmers of their time, would realize that turning the land into infertile soil — as Energy Fuel surely wants to do with the land it claws back from the monuments — is unnecessary. George Washington was a member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, and in his address to the Continental Congress in 1776, he asked “whether [Americans’] houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed” by the British. Centuries later, what was the work of a foreign army is now domestic business.
Thomas Jefferson noted Washington would “rather be on his farm than to be made Emperor of the world.” Jefferson, agrarian son of the Enlightenment, saw the Louisiana Purchase as doubling the size of not just the country but the American aspiration to be free and unencumbered. Corporations, like governments, encumber human freedom.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with the generations of Americans after them, looked to the West and saw immense natural beauty and declared that it was Manifest Destiny for these ranges and valleys to be under the Stars and Stripes. If we were to shrink the monuments, we risk turning them into simply more oil fields and mining corporations.
As the great Enlightenment writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau said, “in nature is the preservation of the world.” In the preservation of the world is the preservation of the dignity and privacy of the private and free individual.