Critics of National Monuments are Two Steps Behind Western Public Opinion

Jan 28, 2016

By Center for Western Priorities

A long history of American presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, have used the Antiquities Act to protect special outdoor spaces as national monuments. Today, these monuments are part of the very fabric of Western life.

Anyone who’s spent time among America’s national monuments, such as the towering sandstone monoliths of the Colorado National Monument or the spires of Utah’s Cedar Breaks National Monument, would find it hard to fathom that conservation critics have opposed virtually every past attempt to protect public lands for future generations.

Even today, anti-conservation politicians are trying to impede future protections for our American lands. Only this week, the Antiquities Act—the very law we can thank for the protection of the Grand Canyon National Park and the Statue of Liberty—came under attack when Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) proposed an amendment to prohibitively limit the authority of future presidents to designate national monuments.

But now, for the first time, public opinion research from the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project provides data to show that perceived controversy around national monuments is unfounded. The poll shows anti-conservation politicians are far out of step with the majority of voters in the Rocky Mountain West.

Below, we highlight two key takeaways from the poll:

  1. The public supports the national monuments that politicians and some in the press believe to be unpopular or controversial.
  2. Western voters broadly support presidents setting aside spectacular lands as national monuments.


National Monuments Perceived as Controversial are Now Popular Among Voters

Two monuments created by President Bill Clinton, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, have been viewed by some as controversial or unpopular.

When President Clinton designated the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in 2001, protecting the waterways that Lewis and Clark explored in 1805, some Montana elected officials publicly opposed the decision.

Former U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) warned that “the president’s actions could cut the nation off from prime grazing land and massive natural gas deposits.” Former Montana Representative John Witt called the designation day “Black Wednesday.” “Cowardly,” said former U.S. Representative James Hansen (R-UT).

But, today, Montanans would disagree. In Montana, 58 percent of Montana voters believe the designation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was a “good thing” and only 11 percent a “bad thing.”

upper missouri river breaks

Similarly, when President Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante as a national monument in 1996, he said:

“Mining is important to our economy and our national security, but we can’t have mines everywhere and we shouldn’t have mines that threaten our national treasures.”

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) dismissed this vision of conservation, calling Grand Staircase-Escalante “a sneak attack on the State of Utah” and “the mother of all land grabs.” And politicians like Senator Hatch continue to criticize the monument.

But today, a plurality of Utah voters are thankful for President Clinton’s vision. In fact, only 25 percent maintain that the decision was a “bad thing.”

grand staircase-escalante

Despite the doomsday tenor and the heated rhetoric that followed in the wake of President Clinton’s decision to set aside the Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Upper Missouri River Breaks for future generations, the national monuments have become sources of economic growth in their communities.

In the Grand Staircase-Escalante region, jobs grew by 38 percent between monument designation in 1996 and 2008. In Montana, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument has a total economic impact of about $10 million per year.


Westerners Support the President in Protecting New Lands as National Monuments

Western voters overwhelmingly stand with today’s leaders working to protect deserving public lands. According to the Colorado College poll, 80 percent of Westerners are in favor of future presidents protecting public lands with a national monument designation.

future national monuments

And yet, legislative proposals to protect the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument in Arizona haven’t gained traction in Congress, instead meeting anti-monument rhetoric. So supporters of these conservation proposals, both led by local Native American tribes, are turning to President Obama to ensure lands are protected for future generations.

Those opposing both monument proposals, however, are two steps behind the public. 66 percent of Utahns support protecting the Bears Ears region and 73 percent of Arizonans support protecting the lands around the Grand Canyon as national monuments.

bears ears

grand canyon heritage

Instead of well-informed debate, critics continue to resort to reactionary, knee-jerk fear of economic stagnation—an argument that has been soundly rebuked by the significant economic successes of our national monuments.

The rhetoric of critics can’t stand the test of time, but thankfully the national monuments designated by our great conservation leaders can. As former U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar put it:

“Western communities care deeply about the public lands that embody the best of our nation’s culture, spirit and beauty. [They] see our outdoor heritage as integral to our economy and our way of life.”

Featured Photo: Mark Byzewski, CC BY 2.0