On Twitter on Thursday morning, I came across two very different points about two different sets of American monuments.
The first tweet came from the president, addressing the Confederate monuments that still stand in so many American cities. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump wrote. And later: “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
The other came from the National Parks Conservation Association, reminding Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that 2.7 million Americans had spoken out in support of preserving national monuments.
That tweet refers to the fact that Zinke is currently reassessing the validity of 27 national monuments—that is, each monument that is both larger than 100,000 acres and was designated after 1996. He’s doing so in response to an April 26 executive order from Trump, and he’s expected to release his final assessment next week, on Aug. 24.
When Trump released this executive order, several scandals ago, it caused quite a stir. The order itself reads as somewhat procedural, and, speaking publicly, Trump framed it as a classic states’ rights vs. federal government dispute. In reality, this was an unprecedented directive: No president has ever revoked the status of a national monument. The threat to do so was widely (and likely correctly) seen as a political rebuke of President Barack Obama, who designated Utah’s Bears Ears a national monument less than a month before he left office (granting a request from five Native American tribes that had been six years in the making).
If there’s a common thread between the Confederate statues Trump loves and the national monuments he seems willing to cast aside, it’s the president’s small-mindedness. Trump is willing to defend the likes of Robert E. Lee not only because it is a natural outlet for his own bigotry and it’s likely to score him points with his virulent political base. He is also willing to speak out because he sees himself in Lee—a (supposedly) great man who’s been unfairly demonized. The president feels kinship for a bronze idol that a great number of Americans want to tear down but has no such connection to the American landscape. Nature, he thinks, is something to be dominated rather than celebrated.
The national monuments now under review range from Bears Ears to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean to the Giant Sequoia Monument in California. The Sequoia Monument is just north of Sequoia National Park—the difference between a park and a monument is largely that the land is preserved for a different reason. As Outside put it, “National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest.”
Zinke has toured many of the monuments since Trump issued that executive order, and just this week the interior secretary declared that five of the 27 will certainly retain their protected status. The Department of the Interior has also solicited comments from the public on these national monuments. Per an analysis conducted by the Center for Western Priorities, 96 percent of respondents prefer to keep the monuments as they are, with 3 percent opposed and 1 percent neutral.
It’s entirely possible that nothing will happen to any of these monuments. Alternately, Zinke could recommend that certain borders be renegotiated or that entire designations be revoked. If any monuments do lose their status, they could be protected by their states. Such a move could also pave the way to development on formerly protected lands.
At the moment, it’s hard to trust a government that has loosened restrictions on drilling for oil in national parks and just this week nonsensically reversed a ban on plastic water bottle sales in the parks. But regardless of the final outcome here, this past week has shown that our president is willing to defend statues of treasonous slave owners while taking unprecedented steps to undermine our national parks and monuments—pieces of American history that we must all fight to preserve. It’s just another indicator that the sooner we rid ourselves of the current president and the racist relics he supports, the more beautiful every piece of the American landscape will be.