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A New Administration and the Issue of a Land Ethic

By Jacob Ng

I’ve had a fair amount of free time this semester. Perhaps too much. My course load wasn’t too strenuous, so I felt comfortable pursuing some of my other interests. Besides clean energy, my main passion is for the outdoors. I spent three weekends this past October leading trips with the Hoofer Outing club at my school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We went backpacking and canoeing in the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan, bicycle touring to a local state park, and backpacking on the Superior Hiking trail in Minnesota.

In addition to these trips, I’ve started a routine of hanging out with some friends at the school’s small rock-climbing gym. We also got into the irresponsible habit of staying up late on weeknights, watching climbing films like Reel Rock. We’re always stoked to watch talented athletes push the limits of the sport while climbing in some of the world’s most cherished outdoor spaces, like Yosemite, Patagonia, and Bears Ears.

It’s not surprising to find strong support for environmental activism among climbers, backpackers and paddlers. Sitting around countless back country campsites, my friends and I have grappled with Muir, Leopold and Abbey. We have a clear interest in preserving wilderness areas, not just for the purposes of recreation, but also as something whose value cannot be reflected in a price tag. Take the Boundary Waters for example; it’s one of the few places I’m aware of where people are comfortable drinking water straight from the lakes. That’s how clean and pure it is. Is it really worth jeopardizing this pristine environment by allowing industrial mining within the same watershed?

Under the new administration, it seems that previously protected land is no longer safe. President Trump just issued proclamations cutting the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, and reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 45%. These monuments, enabled by the Antiquities Act, were protected for their ‘objects of historic or scientific interest’, such as Native American sites, petroglyphs, iconic landscape features, and paleontological specimens.

After ordering the review of a number of national monuments (which included a public comment period), the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, gave the president recommendations to scale back some of the monuments because they were not limited to ‘the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected’. In some cases, objects were deemed ‘not unique’ enough. In others, the land was already protected by designation as Wilderness or Wilderness Study Area.

This move has sparked an uproar among Native American tribes, environmentalists, and outdoor sports lovers. Some say the cuts are illegal - that the Antiquities Act gives the President the power to create National Monuments, but not to amend or remove them.

I’m not interested in debating the semantics of legislation from a century ago. I’ll hesitantly leave that to the courts. What bothers me about the situation is that the vast majority of the public comments were in favor of maintaining or expanding the monuments. However, a uranium production firm, Energy Fuels, opted to use its voice and money to press for shrinking the National Monument boundaries. There are also coal deposits within the old boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante, which raises suspicion about the Trump administration’s motives.

The sad truth seems to be that politics listens to money more than people. President Trump has made it clear that he supports reinvigorating the U.S. coal industry - an industry which not only harms the planet, but which is already dying a slow death by simple economics. What concerns me most about the current administration is the values that are guiding (or misguiding) their decisions.

Another example can be found in the Senate’s proposed version of the tax bill, which would open up oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a potentially devastating blow to environmental advocates who have fought against ANWR drilling for decades. These issues are never black-and-white; drilling proponents point out the benefits for locals which could result from opening the door to industry - more money for roads, schools and hospitals, as well as job opportunities.

My opinion is that it comes down to the issue of a land ethic, the idea espoused by Aldo Leopold that humans should strive to “live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Exploiting the earth for resources may temporarily provide profits to a select few, however, this is far outweighed by the damage done in the process. A landscape is tarnished, and its products are burned to spread the environmental harm all around the world. This is the opposite of sustainability. We have a responsibility not only to future generations of humans, but also to all life on Earth to not abuse our power.

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