Shall We Spend or Save Our National Treasures?

Areas cut out of Utah monuments are rich in oil, coal, uranium

WaPo - Utahan Lands

Alaskan Oil Zombie Roams The Capitol
Forbes - SenMurkowski

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on Nov. 14. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, is well on his way to charting the course for the dissolution of what was once a Republican legacy. I speak, of course, about our federally protected lands and the treasures they contain. From Andrew Jackson through Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even extending to George W. Bush, the establishment and maintenance of federally protected lands has been a pillar of Republican policy. President Trump, utilizing Executive orders (March 28, 2017 and December 20, 2017), has opted instead to follow Secretary Zinke’s newly determined path by reconfiguring the way in which U.S. natural resources within National Parks and National Monuments are managed. The White House has also directed the elimination and/or alternation of a number of 9B regulations. These 36 CFR Part 9, Subpart B –  Non-Federal Oil and Gas Rights regulations were implemented in 1978 and updated, as drilling techniques evolved, in 2009.

“[The purposes of the regulations are to] insure that activities undertaken pursuant to [nonfederal oil and gas rights] are conducted in a manner consistent with the purposes for which the National Park System and each unit thereof were created, to prevent or minimize damage to the environment and other resource values, and to insure to the extent feasible that all units of the National Park System are left unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
National Park Service – 9B Regulations

Their rollback further opens the door for private exploration of oil, natural gas, and mineral deposits on certain protected federal lands. Combined with the Trump administration’s goal of delegating environmental conservation authority down to individual states, it is fairly likely that mining in National Park and Monument land will increase. Is this necessary? Is this a wise course of action?

National Parks, and other lands under federal oversight, are some of our greatest strategic resources, many created for permanent protection by a great Republican President, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. These parks guard priceless works of nature, many having taken millions of years to form.

National Geographic – Beautiful Photos of All 59 U.S. National Parks

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As Teddy said of one American marvel he used Executive power to protect,

“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
National Park Service – Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation

The age of some of the protected formations are nearly impossible to imagine. Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, for example, each took millions of years of natural forces and processes to appear and function as they do today. Not to mention the rich history of human activity that helped to shape these lands. The results of these millions of years could easily be lost for a quick buck and exploitation of limited resources. What sort of resources, you ask? In the case of the aforementioned Utahan and Alaskan lands, there appears to be at minimum a wealth of oil, coal, and uranium. In addition, there are 12 National Parks with currently active wells and 30 more with split estates, where the federal government owns the surface land, but private corporations own the mineral rights beneath:

National Park Sites with Active Oil and Gas Wells

Park State Number of Wells Number of Companies Operating Wells
Alibates Flint Quarries NM TX 5 1
Aztec Ruins NM NM 4 2
Big Cypress NPres FL 20 1
Big Thicket NPres TX 37 16
Big South Fork NRRA TN, KY 152 31
Cuyahoga Valley NP OH 90 21
Cumberland Gap NHP TN, KY, VA 2 1
Gauley River NRA WV 28 3
Lake Meredith NRA TX 174 17
New River Gorge NR WV 1 1
Obed WSR WV 5 2
Padre Island NS TX 14 2

National Park Sites Without Active Wells, but Where Drilling Could Take Place in the Future

Park State
Bluestone NSR WV
Cane River Creole NHP LA
Carlsbad Caverns NP NM
Chaco Culture NHP NM
Dinosaur NM CO
Everglades NP FL
Flight 93 Memorial PA
Fort Necessity NB PA
Fort Union Trading Post NHS ND
Friendship Hill NHS PA
Glen Canyon NRA AZ, UT
Grand Teton NP WY
Great Sand Dunes NP & PRES CO
Guadalupe Mountains NP TX
Gulf Islands NS MS, FL
Hopewell Culture NHP OH
Indiana Dunes NL IN
Jean Lafitte NHP & PRES LA
Johnstown Flood Memorial PA
Little River Canyon NPres AL
Mammoth Cave NP KY
Mesa Verde NP CO
Nocodemus NHS NE
Palo Alto Battlefield NHP TX
San Antonio Missions NHP TX
Santa Monica Mountains NRA CA
Steamtown NHS PA
Theodore Roosevelt NP ND
Upper Delaware SRR NY, PA
Washita Battlefield NHS OK

National Parks Conservation Association – National Parks Affected by 9B Rules

These are only a few of the many National Parks and National Monuments that sit atop hidden wealth. It is not a coincidence that these lands specifically protect a significant amount of America’s natural resources.  Having a protected set of commodities like oil and coal is important for future emergencies, but to mine it all just to increase quarterly profits is a quick route to a state with no emergency stockpile. Teddy was both an environmentalist and a pragmatist.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
National Park Service – Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation

He was a practical man who understood the wisdom of preserving a cache of resources that the country would be able to dip into in times of great and true crisis unavoidable by any other means. Are our modern obstacles unavoidable? Can they not be surmounted by other means?

Yes, we are in a time of economic crisis, but it is one of our own making, brought to us by unfettered greed and the pursuit of endless corporate profit growth. We have outsourced vast swaths of our production sector and entwined our fuel and energy future with an incredibly unstable part of the world. In order to give value to our fiat currency, and provide various sectors of our economy with endless work, we have spent decades dancing with Salafists, as a means to access and control trade of precious black liquid. The spice must flow. Terrorism has resulted. Rebellions have resulted. Wars have resulted. This is not the rainy day envisioned by the brilliant leaders of the past. Much like the robbery of the Social Security surpluses, the current justification for the carve-up of National Parks is nothing more than the shortsighted pursuit of money by a handful of Robber Barons, and their political servants, whose capital can finance their flight from the country once its wealth is stripped bare. Teddy and the true Republicans of old would be ashamed of our childishness. Surrounded by monopolies, I find myself wondering “Where are our trustbusters?”  Plagued by hyenas and vultures, I find myself asking, “Where are our visionaries?”

While undertaking the specific research to write this piece, I came to a realization: my title frames the issue incorrectly. The real question is: shall we spend or invest in our national treasures? The implication of this question is that there is an unaddressed benefit – outside of ecological, environmental, and treaty concerns – to keeping these lands protected. Our National Parks are an economy unto themselves. They act as permanent anchors of the natural wonders of our country, attracting visitors from all corners of the Earth who wish to marvel, in person, at their grandeur and experience, firsthand, their rugged beauty and the challenges they pose to the adventurous. This is an endlessly renewing economy, as generation after generation of human beings travel to these parks to spend their hard-earned cash. Businesses and communities, which might otherwise survive on the thin edge, are able to thrive on the tourist economy that our lands create and maintain over time. This stream of income varies over time, but it is a consistent one. In 2016 alone, visitors to our national parks spent approximately $18.4 billion dollars. That’s not a one-time profit from oil exploration or coal mining, but an ongoing influx of billions of dollars every year. This income stream, which acts as a semi-permanent lifeblood for regions all over the United States, is coupled to inflation, meaning that as long as the number of visitors remains relatively stable the revenue generated will also remain stable no matter the value of our currency or the state of other parts of our broader economy.

As our country moves forward into the future, the question appears more and more pertinent: shall we spend or invest in our national treasures? The timeless creations of nature we destroy through exploration of resources like oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, etc cannot be recovered by clever landscaping and land reclamation. This is immutable. Were we able to mine these resources without destroying our natural wonders, citizens would likely find themselves far more open to the idea, but the decision to extract and use our strategic reserves is not one to be made lightly. One cannot remove load-bearing walls from their home, sell off the metal and lumber therein, hang a nice curtain in their place, and expect the house to stand. Should we not save these reserves for a crisis that we cannot solve another way?

There is a secondary issue, of delegation of duty, to be considered as well. Being a can of slightly different worms, perhaps this is better saved for a separate piece, but I would like to introduce some questions regardless. Is this, as Republicans suggest, an issue over which states should have authority? What would be the consequences of land like Bears Ears and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge changing hands from Washington D.C. to Salt Lake City and Juneau? Who will be more responsive to the concerns of local citizens and who will be more responsive to the concerns of business? Will Utah and Alaska do a better job? Here are a pair of contrasting opinions:
1. The Hill – Sizing them up: Utah rep, not Trump or Obama, meets Navajo needs on Bears Ears
2. LA Times – Op-Ed Under cover of tax bill, Congress gives away the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – to drillers

Regardless of the trappings of our decisions, the timeless wisdom of President Roosevelt speaks to us still today:

“It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.”
National Park Service – Theodore Roosevelt Quotes

– SoO

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