By Kelly Vera
In September, I had the special opportunity to experience my first camping trip at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico, a long way from my home in Toms River, New Jersey. Sleeping under the stars in the mountains and among the tarantulas was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. During that trip to the national monument, organized by Hispanic Access Foundation, me and my peers were able to learn about the diverse communities that advocated and benefit from this unique landscape. Enjoying the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is something that everyone should have the opportunity to experience, in part because everyone owns it. That monument, like all national monuments, is public land that has been protected for the benefit of all Americans.
Last month, President Trump declared war on our national monuments, and by extension our natural, cultural, and historic heritage. He did so by announcing the biggest reduction in protected lands in American history, severely shrinking the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. National monuments have, for over 100 years, protected our most iconic landscapes and most important historic sites for future generations. Before the Grand Canyon was one of the most famous National Parks in the world, it was a national monument. The Statue of Liberty is a National Monument. President Trump and his Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke have attacked this great conservation legacy of our country, rather than protecting our most treasured places so that our children and grandchildren may have access to the outdoors and may learn from the past.
The attacks may continue. Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is also on a list of monuments recommended for altering, prepared by Secretary Zinke. The monument protects many important archaeological and cultural sites, including native American settlements and petroglyphs, some dating back 8,000 years. There are fossils of prehistoric creatures like ground sloths, and the amazing wildlife exists today too, from mule deer to golden eagles.
These monuments were protected for a reason, preserved in perpetuity for us. Whether you are from New Jersey or live adjacent to these western monuments, our public lands are something we all can proudly claim as our own- places we can all share and visit. President Trump is attempting to take these lands away from us by removing protections and opening up the lands to resource extraction and other invasive development.
Our communities can and must stand up to the assault on our national monuments being perpetrated by the Trump Administration. Secretary Zinke and members of Congress, including Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Rob Bishop have made it clear that they wish to gut the Antiquities Act. The Antiquities Act is the tool that allows the President to protect national monuments. It is a cornerstone conservation law signed into law in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt and it is resolutely bi-partisan, as 8 Democrats and 8 Republicans have used the Act since its inception.
The attack on our protected public lands, which has begun with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, will surely continue if we are silent. We must defend our heritage. Anyone who wishes to have access to wild lands or feels compelled to connect to our history and tapestry of cultures must raise their voices now and fight to defend the future of conservation here in America, including the Antiquities Act and national monuments, from President Trump’s attacks.