By Maryann Hendrickson / Commander, U.S. Navy, Retired, Las Cruces, Ruben Roybal / U.S. Marine, Retired, Las Vegas, N.M. and Jeff Swanson / Veteran and Military Chaplain, Alamogordo as published on abqjournal.com
“Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who while claiming to be a disciple of Theodore Roosevelt has had a hand in undoing Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act legacy and overseeing the largest rollback of public lands protections in history.”
For many veterans, words cannot adequately describe the meaning of protected public lands to those who have returned from duty. Hiking to a mountaintop, the rush of river rafting, camping deep in a New Mexico forest are all experiences made possible by public lands set aside for reflection and recreation.
Many of the most spectacular public lands we enjoy were protected through the Antiquities Act, signed into law 112 years ago on June 8 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt keenly observed that the looting of treasured artifacts and development interests were imminent dangers to America’s most special places. He also knew that if he waited for the slow process of Congressional approval to protect these places, the damage would be irreversible.
And so was born the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the power to designate national monuments and protect federal lands that contain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Within three years, Roosevelt had designated more than a dozen national monuments including the Grand Canyon National Monument, which subsequently became a national park and is now recognized worldwide as the symbol of the American West.
Alarmingly, the conservation gains made under the Antiquities Act have been attacked by a well-known veteran with an especially distinguished record of service. We’re speaking about our Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who while claiming to be a disciple of Theodore Roosevelt has had a hand in undoing Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act legacy and overseeing the largest rollback of public lands protections in history.
Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act has been responsible for saving such popular attractions in New Mexico as the White Sands National Monument, the largest pure gypsum dune field in the world; Bandelier National Monument, which provides an important window into our native ancestral origins, and El Malpais National Monument with its dramatic lava fields and caves for exploration. More recently, Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments were designated, attracting more visitors to important sites in New Mexico’s history and a wide array of recreation opportunities.
We veterans count on our national public lands for recreation and healing. In addition, our military history is protected in these lands – from Civil War battlefields to the remnants of the Deming Air Base practice bombing sites in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, where pilots trained for pivotal overseas missions during World War II. We believe that protecting our national public lands is a patriotic duty.
But apparently not Interior Secretary Zinke. In his first year he conducted a “review” of 27 national monuments, recommended a drastic shrinkage of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and encouraged President Trump to reduce the size of other monuments. In his recap of Interior’s 2017 accomplishments, Zinke asserted that he is creating a “conservation stewardship legacy, second only to Teddy Roosevelt” – all the while opening up new public lands to energy development and taking away protections in place for decades. This is precisely what President Roosevelt feared most and fought.
Roosevelt famously said to wilderness advocate John Muir while looking over the Yosemite Valley: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
Roosevelt knew our public lands are our heritage, and he championed the Antiquities Act to help keep America’s history, culture and outdoor treasures intact. We who fought to protect American values understand this. Along with the many veterans who have relied on our national monuments and other protected public lands for peace, solitude, recreation and more, our hope as we celebrate the 112th anniversary of the Antiquities Act is for Interior Secretary Zinke to understand this as well, and finally begin to lead like Theodore Roosevelt.