In May, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the wind-carved red rock of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. But when he looked out over the vista, it’s not clear that he saw all the value the expansive landscape had to offer.
Zinke was there to follow up on an executive order issued by President Donald Trump, which requested that the Department of Interior review 27 national monuments—including the Delaware-size Bears Ears—that may be reduced in size or have their federal protections rescinded. Similar to national parks, the government establishes national monuments to safeguard sites and structures deemed to have historic, scientific, or natural significance. The president asked Zinke to consider whether some designations constitute overreach from Washington. Each of the monuments currently on the chopping block spans more than 150 square miles, and the administration argues that they create unacceptable barriers to achieving energy independence or otherwise curtail economic growth.
Trump’s executive order was issued under the principle of “recognizing the importance of the Nation’s wealth of natural resources to American workers and the American economy.” But as opponents have pointed out, this takes a very narrow view of natural resources. Preserving these spaces protects nature for its oft-ignored intrinsic value, as well as for the solitude and wonder that it provides to our citizens (something that self-proclaimed Teddy Roosevelt Republican Zinke should understand). It also brings big benefits to hunters and fishers who use the land’s resources sustainably, to nearby towns that boom with tourists, and to the larger local regions, as natural areas may provide clean air and water purification, as well as help with climate regulation.
What’s more, preservation often guards the sacred lands of indigenous Americans, whose deep connections to these places far predate the founding of this nation. All are monetarily and spiritually significant reasons for conservation. All, based on how the interior secretary has conducted his review thus far, will likely be passed over. (Zinke recommended significantly downsizing Bears Ears in an interim report but has asked the president to delay the final decision about the hotly contested site until all are reviewed in late August.)
These protected natural spaces also offer a less recognized value: Their ecosystems contain a wealth of organisms that, as medical research is increasingly showing us, may lead to advances for human health. Diabetes. Cancer. Spinal cord repair. Lyme disease. For each of these ailments, there are important American species that may lead or have already led to invaluable therapeutic discoveries. Future medical breakthroughs may be lost if we don’t adequately preserve the protected federal lands where these living resources make their homes. Bears Ears alone harbors at least 18 at-risk species listed under the Endangered Species Act and is a hot spot for biodiversity in the West.
For an example of how this looks in action, you can look more than 300 miles west of Bears Ears, under the star-studded sky of the Mojave Desert, where researchers from Northern Arizona University have used dry ice to lure ticks out of the depths of the ground. The tiny blood siphons are attracted by the carbon dioxide that sublimates off the dry ice, like breath exhaled from a potential host. Many of these insects once carried a strain of bacteria closely related to the kind that causes Lyme disease, a serious tick-borne illness that inflicts more than 300,000 Americans every year. But these soft ticks now seem to be surprisingly free of the harmful pathogen, which causes a sometimes-fatal relapsing fever. The researchers posit that this is because the ticks came off desert tortoises, which don’t contract the fever. Though their current data is preliminary, the researchers are investigating their hypothesis by collecting and testing the eight-legged parasites that come directly off tortoises or out of their burrows. It’s believed that the reptile’s blood performs a bacterial cleansing treatment that could even rid the infected ticks of the bacteria, preventing them from passing it to new victims, including future human hosts.
Indeed, these reptiles may be keeping the tick-borne infection rate low in this area. And beyond lowering transmission rates today, learning more about how their systems eliminate the bacteria could lead to important medical discoveries in the future. Safeguarding this possibility involves protecting the habitat of the near-endangered desert tortoise, including the 2,500-square-mile Mojave Trails National Monument, which is currently under review. By preserving the habitat, we support biodiversity and human health. Not far from the Mojave Trails National Monument, the Sand to Snow National Monument may also be at risk under the executive order—and with it, its endangered Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards, Least Bell’s vireos, and other understudied threatened species. Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Bears Ears are just three of 27 national monuments that may be rescinded, potentially risking the future of hundreds of at-risk species and their ecosystems.
The desert tortoise represents just one example of our deepening understanding of how ecosystems, animals, and human health intersect. Just look at what has resulted from a small subset of research on North American reptiles. Researchers developed Exenatide, a treatment for Type 2 diabetes, from the saliva of Gila monsters. Scientists are studying American alligator blood extracts that appear to reduce colorectal cancer–cell viability, which could provide a new tool in the fight against the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. They’re also looking at the genes involved in the tail regeneration of Anolis lizards, which could be used to help repair spinal cord injuries, osteoarthritis, and other nerve and cartilage diseases in humans. This and other work on reptiles represents just a sliver of what we’re learning from the Earth’s vast array of animals, plants, and other organisms.
As scientists continue to uncover how human and animal health relate, they’re also reframing important areas of research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, now regularly consults veterinarians and ecologists when monitoring and controlling the spread of disease. People like Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a UCLA cardiologist and leader in the field of evolutionary medicine, are making huge strides in understanding human disease by focusing on similarities between humans and other animal species. Humans are not as unique as we would like to think, and Natterson-Horowitz believes that learning about our evolutionary cousins can help us understand our vulnerability to disease and how to prevent and combat it. Whether studying atherosclerosis in birds, breast cancer in big cats, or autistic-like behaviors in dogs, vulnerability to what we usually think of as “human” diseases is widespread. Learning about how other animals fight, avoid, or succumb to these diseases will help the future of human medicine.
Since Inauguration Day, Republican-sponsored bills have been introduced to limit increases in land controlled by the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management; to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency; to put Congress in charge of regulating greenhouse gases; to give states more autonomy to use federal lands for drilling, fracking, and other means of disruptive energy production; to invalidate Obama-era land management plans that considered the most up-to-date science and public input; to redirect wildlife restoration funds to build shooting ranges; to reduce certain hunting restrictions; and to prevent a delisted endangered species from being put back on the list for a period of 10 years. Even if only a few of these bills become law, the damage they do could be irreversible.
If the administration truly wants to act in the interest of America’s workers, it should act in the long-term interest of their (that is, our) well-being. Our health relies on biodiversity in ways that we are just starting to understand. Stripping away protections for these areas won’t just harm the natural environment and the meaning people find in it: It will also derail potential medical breakthroughs that could profoundly improve our lives and the lives of generations to come.
Though Zinke has delayed his final decision on Bears Ears, in his interim report, he recommended reducing the land protected by the monument so that the remaining area can be used for new practices, including timber harvest and mining.
So as Zinke reconsiders the protections for Bears Ears, Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and dozens of other federal areas, we must ask ourselves if these lands will become markers of our country’s deference to short-sighted industry interests? Or might they be kept as national monuments to American potential?
The administration says they want to hear from the citizens. The public comment period for all monuments under review is open through July 9.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.