The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
On August 17, five days after neo-Nazis and white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s decision to remove a bronze statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, President Donald Trump, already under fire for refusing to fully condemn the hate groups, tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” He added, “… the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” And yet four months earlier, Trump had issued an executive order seeking to roll back protections for roughly two dozen national monuments that Native Americans, historians, and conservationists alike consider of great historical and scientific value.
Since 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act, U.S. presidents have had the authority to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest” from excavation and destruction by branding them national monuments. Roosevelt embraced the law and designated 18 sites during his presidency. A total of 16 presidents, both Republican and Democratic, have created more than 150 monuments that safeguard nearly 850 million acres of America’s cultural and natural landscapes. These monuments honor some of the nation’s most iconic places, such as the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty.
Trump is one of the first presidents to break with this tradition. His executive order calls for his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reevalute all monuments established after 1996 that cover more than 100,000 acres. He will determine whether they were “appropriately classified under the [Antiquities] Act” and whether their designation had received sufficient local input. “A lack of public outreach,” as the order notes, “create[s] barriers to achieving energy independence, restrict[s] public access to and use of Federal lands, … and otherwise curtail[s] economic growth.”
In his initial assessment, Zinke scrutinized 22 national monuments, nearly all in the American West. The details of Zinke’s report to the White House were kept secret, but it appears that while no monument was recommended for elimination, three were flagged for a reduction: Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument along the Oregon-California border, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Bears Ears National Monument. (It’s not clear yet how much land will be affected.)
Cascade-Siskiyou, established in 2000 by Bill Clinton, became contentious only when Barack Obama expanded it in his final weeks in office. Clinton established the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 with little trouble from Utah officials even though it cut off the possibility of tapping the monument’s coal reserves. But Zinke has focused primarily on Bears Ears—the most controversial of the 29 monuments designated by Obama.
The 1.35 million acres of land in southeastern Utah host spectacular mountains and valleys and incomparable archaeological treasures, including an array of ancient Native American villages, cliff dwellings, rock art panels, and sacred shrines, as well as scores of historic homesteads, ranches, and mines. By one estimate, Bears Ears likely contains more than 100,000 archaeological sites. But some local residents and their allies were angered by the designation, arguing that Bears Ears should be managed at the state level and would hinder economic development. In countering these claims, a coalition of archaeologists, environmentalists, and Native American tribes pointed out that the size and importance of Bears Ears required federal resources to maintain and its elevated status would provide a boost in tourism.
Zinke’s recommendation to trim these protected sites may not be a worst-case scenario, but it certainly undermines the sanctity of places that were intended to be a cradle of national pride. Historically, presidents considered the establishment of a national monument to be irreversible. “Once designated,” as California Governor Jerry Brown wrote Zinke in July, “a National Monument becomes part of our national heritage and the birthright of all future Americans.” Although this is not the first time national monuments have faced the threat of reduction, there was usually more at stake. In 1915, in anticipation of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson removed more than 300,000 acres from what became Olympic National Park in Washington, believing that the conflict would demand large supplies of timber.
Zinke’s proposal is all the more wounding coming as it did just days after Charlottesville. Trump readily defended a Confederate statue, using bold, evocative language. But he has not offered similar words for Bears Ears, even though his order would involve “ripping apart” Native American heritage and destroying nature reserves whose “beauty” can never be “comparably replaced.” Native Americans regard ancestral sites as sacred and believe they contain living spirits. To piece together the past, archaeologists require the artifacts buried in these grounds to remain whole and undisturbed. Looting and desecration of these ancient relics were part of the reason why Obama created Bears Ears. The monument is also richly symbolic. It offers overdue recognition of a minority group whose concerns are regularly ignored. “For the first time in history, a president has used the Antiquities Act to honor the request of Tribal Nations to protect our sacred sites,” David Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council delegate, noted last year after Bears Ears was created. “In doing so, he has given the opportunity for all Americans to come together and heal.”
And yet the nation is still smarting. Trump’s executive order takes on considerably more meaning after Charlottesville. It now stands for much more than just prioritizing business needs over environmental protection, or rebuking Obama’s legacy of conservation, or catering to a portion of the Republican base skeptical of the federal government. Intentionally or not, Trump’s order makes clear whose heritage he considers worthy of preservation and whose he does not.
The effect of all this is political intimidation. Confederate statues are a prime example of how monuments can be used to threaten minority groups. As a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals, the vast majority of them were created not following the Civil War but during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era—a clear correlation that shows they were made in response to the racial animus of their times. The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville was erected in 1924, nearly six decades after the Civil War ended but during a period of heightened discrimination against African Americans. By equating the removal of Confederate statues with the erasure of history, Trump willfully ignores these monuments’ true historical legacy.
Dismantling monuments honoring minority groups, or failing to protect them when so few exist, is similarly threatening. Within a month of his inauguration, Trump allowed the nearly 1,200 mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed even though Obama had halted construction. There was overwhelming concern that the drilling would threaten sacred indigenous sites and pollute drinking water. As Cheryl Angel, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe who protested at Standing Rock, said after Trump allowed the drilling to resume, “I feel completely betrayed as an American citizen. I feel like the government has stabbed Americans in the back. Their decision to approve that pipeline without an environmental impact study [means] no one will know the detriment to that river until the pipeline leaks.” (As feared, the pipeline leaked shortly after it restarted. It spilled 84 gallons of crude oil into the soil and leaked two more times after that.)
Trump’s desire to undo Bears Ears and other places that venerate Native America’s past and present-day cultures is not coincidental. Both Dakota Access and Bears Ears are means for Trump to deny the historical presence of Native Americans and to reject the values of their environmentalist partners. His support for Confederate symbols and his antagonism toward national monuments, then, are perhaps not a contradiction after all—both are meant to keep his opponents down. In this, he is entirely consistent.