The Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico is just one of the many public lands being reviewed under Executive Order 13792. ©Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

Once a national monument is designated to conserve a landscape and its cultural history, once a natural habitat is legally protected to save wildlife, or once an oil pipeline is stayed to safeguard a community’s clean water, you can breathe a sigh of relief, right? The battle is won; end of story.

Unfortunately, no, that’s not right. Things have dramatically changed. Today, national monuments are being threatened with rescindment, set-aside habitats are newly becoming fair game for development and pipelines thought to be shut down are again transporting potential illnesses and death along with their oil.

Now, in contrast with the past, we can never consider environmental battles “won.” The best we can hope for, it seems, is a temporary reprieve. Our national monuments, national wildlife refuges and oil pipelines are cases in point.

Grand Canyon National Park was declared a national monument in 1908. Nearly half of America’s current national parks got their start as monuments. ©faungg’s photos, flickr

Monuments no more

Since Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906 under President Theodore Roosevelt, 16 presidents have used the measure to establish 157 monuments. In fact, nearly half of America’s current national parks were first designated as monuments, including iconic parks such as Arches, the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and Zion.

On April 26, 2017, however, President Trump signed an executive order asking the Interior Department to conduct an unprecedented review of more than two dozen national monuments that were proclaimed by the last three presidents, which set aside millions of acres from development. The order forces a question never before tested in the 111-year history of the Antiquities Act: whether a president can nullify a previous president’s proclamation establishing a national monument.

The review, which will include public lands such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—established by President Clinton in 1996—and the Bears Ears National Monument—designated by President Obama in 2016—could lead to rescindment, resizing or otherwise modifying these protected places.


Established by President Clinton in 1996, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is in danger of being slashed by nearly half, leaving a million acres of federal public land open to harmful developments—such as coal mining, gas and oil drilling, mineral exploitation, new road construction and the use of mechanized vehicles—that could ruin vital parts of the paleontological record and the land’s wild natural character.

The stated purpose of the order was to determine if such monuments “create barriers to achieving energy independence … and otherwise curtail economic growth.” And while in the past some monuments have been altered, no president has ever repealed the status of a national monument once it had been established.

We could be on the verge of a first.

Refuges rescinded

The 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the world, home to a vast array of wildlife, including 45 mammals—including grizzly and polar bears, arctic foxes, arctic graylings, musk oxen, voles, wolverines and wolves—and more than 200 migratory and resident birds, such as ducks, loons, shorebirds and snowy owls. It boasts the greatest biodiversity of any protected area north of the Arctic Circle and is the calving grounds for one of North America’s last great caribou herds, the Porcupine herd. Alaska Natives, including the Inupiat and Gwich’in, depend on the refuge for sustaining and protecting their indigenous traditions and ways of life.

Within the refuge is an area known as the “coastal plain,” which descends from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. The caribou herd considers this their traditional, core calving area; and polar bears use it as their most important onshore denning habitat. In January 2015, President Barack Obama called on Congress to officially make 12.28 million acres of the refuge, which included the coastal plain, a “Wilderness.” This would have given the highest degree of federal land protection available to the only large swath of Alaska’s—and thus the nation’s—Arctic coastline and sealed it off from oil development. Congress, however, failed to answer the call.

The new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah was set aside to conserve cultural, historic and natural resources. ©Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, flickr

Then, on the same night that Hillary Clinton conceded the presidential election, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young told reporters they would begin a new effort to open the coastal plain to drilling. For the first time it was politicians—not oil companies—making such a push.

It’s important to note that the coastal plain accounts for only 5 percent of Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope.

Pipelines unplugged

The Dakota Access Pipeline runs nearly 1,200 miles across four states, from the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota through South Dakota, Iowa and down to a terminal in Illinois. But just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation in North Dakota, the pipeline crosses the Missouri River; and that spot has become the focal point for a fight over how the pipeline’s route was analyzed and approved by the federal government.

In front of Alaska’s Brooks Range, caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ©U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Sioux have argued that they were not adequately consulted about the pipeline’s course. Running the pipeline under a Missouri River reservoir called Lake Oahe, tribe members say, jeopardizes the primary water source for the reservation. Further damage would be done to sacred sites near the lake, violating tribal treaty rights.

Late last year, on December 4, 2016, after several legal battles, the Army Corps of Engineers halted construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. The corps said it intended to issue an environmental impact statement with “full public input and analysis” before it would approve the river crossing at Lake Oahe.

But on January 24, 2017, President Trump signed an executive memorandum instructing the Army Corps to expedite the review and approval process for the section of the pipeline not yet built. Fourteen days later, the corps granted the easement allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. It also issued a memo terminating the public comment period and withdrew its notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact assessment. The pipeline company then immediately began construction near the crossing under Lake Oahe.

Lake-Oahe, where the Dakota Access Pipeline crosses the Missouri River, became the focal point for a fight about clean water. ©Argyleist, flickr

On February 9, 2017, Sioux residents on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in conjunction with the Standing Rock Sioux, asked the U.S. District Court to issue a restraining order to block the building of the final piece of the pipeline. Both reservations get their water downstream of the Lake Oahe crossing. Four weeks later, the motion was denied.

Only about 5 percent of the land in the United States—just under 110 million acres—is protected as Wilderness. That doesn’t seem like much. It also doesn’t seem like 5 percent of one Alaska coast or clean water for two reservation communities is a lot to ask.

Yet, going into the future, all indications are that we will have to fight for these protections and places of peace, perpetually.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,