America Letter: Access to nature under attack

Weekenders cannot take countryside for granted as Trump moves to redesignate sites

Every Friday, the roads leading out of Washington fill up with cars heading west towards Virginia.

The Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley have long been a favourite weekend getaway destination for busy DC residents looking to escape the city. Located a 90-minute drive from the capital, they offer a welcome retreat from the political whirl of Washington.

This weekend promises to be particularly busy. The east coast of America is hitting “peak leaf”– the time of year when America’s famous autumn foliage is at its most vibrant and resplendent.

This year is not expected to be one of the finest due to the exceedingly warm weather – the sun is still shining strongly in Washington despite the array of pumpkins everywhere heralding the arrival of Halloween next week.


But this has not put off intrepid enthusiasts. Campsites have been booked out for months, dedicated bloggers are dissecting the latest "Fall Foliage Maps" online, while the Washington Post is keeping its readers informed of its latest leaf predictions.

The Shenandoah National Park is one of hundreds of public parks across the United States managed by the National Park Service. The idea behind a network of federally owned public spaces originated in 1872, when president Ulysses S Grant designated California's Yellowstone the nation's first national park, pledging to preserve the park "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people".

A novel idea at the time, the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 – and a parallel system of national monument sites – became the model for public land management across the world. So much so that the concept became known affectionately as “America’s best idea”.

Designated national monuments

It is also an idea that has caught the eye of President Donald Trump. In April, the president signed an executive order seeking to review certain designated national monuments.

For more than a century, the US president has had the power, thanks to a 1906 law known as the Antiquities Act, to proclaim “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments.

The current president now wants to use that Act to effectively shrink some existing national monument sites (national parks are not included in the plan).

In effect, Trump's critics say, the move is part of a Republican-driven move to free up federally controlled lands for private use, including for mining

The White House has argued that national monument designations have suffered from a "lack of public outreach" over the years and insufficient co-ordination with state and local officials. In effect, Trump's critics say, the move is part of a Republican-driven move to free up federally controlled lands for private use, including for mining.

Following the signing of the order, Trump charged secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke with examining 24 sites that could potentially be altered. A public consultation was also opened. After receiving more than three million comments from the public, Zinke reported back to the White House in August. He suggested three sites should be reduced in size, including two in Utah which were designated as national monuments by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The White House has yet to respond to the recommendations.

Trump is not working in a vacuum. For years, many Republicans in Congress have railed against what they see as unchecked federal power over public lands. They say that much of the land was erroneously included in monument designations in the first place, and that this is stifling business and investment opportunities in these regions.

Antiquities Act

Emboldened by Trump's promised actions in this area, the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee in Congress is taking its own action. Earlier this month, the committee backed a proposal by its chairman, Bob Bishop, to overhaul the Antiquities Act.

The Utah Republican, who strongly favours restricting the size of national monuments in his home state, is proposing a revision of the 1906 Act which would constrain the powers of the president to designate national monuments, by introducing checks on proposals for new national monuments. It also proposes changing the types of sites that can be protected.

He argues that the Act was never intended to cover large swathes of land.

Further, this week Zinke proposed raising the entrance fee to several national parks, as budgetary cuts hit.

Environmental groups and Democrats are looking on in alarm. Should the president choose to act on his executive order, his use of the Antiquities Act to reduce the size of some sites is likely to be challenged in court.

Several Democrats have also spoken out.

"Teddy Roosevelt would roll over in his grave," said Maria Cantwell, a Democratic member of the committee who represents Montana, referring to the US president who claimed millions of acres of land for the public during his presidency. "These special places belong to the people, not to corporate polluters."

As millions of people head to national parks this weekend, they should be thankful for the public amenities that have often been taken for granted.