I attended the recent town meeting to learn what I could about a range of important issues, especially plans for a reservation system at Arches National Park and bills to limit the president’s power to declare national monuments. Park Superintendent Kate Cannon painted a grim picture of an Arches National Park overrun with tourists: long lines at the entrance station, fights over parking spaces at many “attractions,” crowded trails. It looks as though Arches will soon surpass 2 million visitors. Then, following her speech, Utah State Rep. Albrecht and his Senate colleague, David Hinkins, presented a plan to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act, under which presidents since 1906 have been authorized to set aside federal land as national monuments. So on one hand we have evidence that the public can’t get enough of places like Arches protected as parks and monuments (“loving them to death”), and on the other Utah politicians who want to take away one of the main means we have to preserve such lands, at least in the state of Utah.
Let us remember that four of our five national parks started life as national monuments. If presidents in the past had been prohibited from declaring national monuments in Utah, as Albrecht and Hinkins want, then those parks would not exist today. Is there anyone left in this state who seriously thinks that Utah’s economy would be better off without Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion national parks? To me, it seems axiomatic that, when existing parks and monuments get overcrowded (as now), we need more of them to spread out “visitations” and give people a better opportunity to enjoy the land free of excessive traffic and crowds. Well, our politicians would reply, Congress should create national parks. But in fact, Congress is usually reluctant to do so because the legislative process is cumbersome and local “extractive industry” interests raise a hue and cry. That is why far-sighted presidents can use the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, which enjoy fewer protections and allow continuing extractive activities like mining and ranching. As the decades pass, local opposition subsides, people begin earning a living from tourism, and eventually support emerges for the conversion of national monuments into national parks, as it did with most of our parks. The Hinkins-Albrecht joint resolution would thus block the normal, natural process of national park creation in this state.