Why Trump’s parks and public lands attack is harmful to all Americans — — especially people of color

New Mexico’s Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is one of more than two dozen under review by Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke.

By R. Flip Hagood and Juan D. Martinez

There have been many times in America’s history when it seemed impossible to bridge the differences that separate us along economic, ethnic, racial and party lines. Nearly twenty years into the new millennium, we struggle to heal wounds dating back to slavery and the Civil War. We still argue lessons learned during violent upheaval during the Sixties. Now, we find ourselves peering into a deep political divide that threatens to swallow up much of the progress we’ve made toward building a healthier environment and a more equitable, democratic society.

The tone of public discourse has become relentlessly harsh and polarized, and so many of us are weary of the bitterness and bickering — the daily diet of mean tweets, political pot shots and surly behavior on Capitol Hill. There is a sense that everyone is talking, but no one is listening. So, here’s an idea — maybe one way out of this mess lies right beneath our feet. Perhaps we can find some desperately-needed common ground by stepping outside, taking a deep breath and actually speaking to one another.

There is no more universally binding human experience than what we find in nature. Walking down a forest trail, hearing the sound of running water or experiencing the wonder of a starry night sky — all of this creates space to reconnect and listen. Our nation is blessed with some of the most stunning parks and wildlands in the world. Their majesty has the power to make us humble and open our minds. Whether it’s in a neighborhood park or a national monument — outside, in nature, we are more likely to understand one another, just by sharing something undeniably real and beautiful.

That’s why it is unthinkable, against a backdrop of record-breaking attendance at our national parks and monuments, and with overwhelming public support for conservation of wild places — that we must now face the results of a Department of Interior review that questioned the protected status of dozens of national monuments targeted for reduction or elimination. Scattered across the country, from Maine to California, these places encompass open space where everyone is welcome — not just the rich and powerful. Ordinary families, people who stand no chance of vacationing at elite golf clubs or members-only retreats like President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Estate, can still experience amazing adventures within our parks and national monuments. We cannot stand by and watch this great democratic heritage, our American public lands, slip through our fingers.

This president’s monument review was harmful to all of us — to small business owners who depend on the tourism and recreation dollars that national monuments attract, to veterans seeking quiet, open space to heal, to local advocacy groups that organized, rallied, and worked hard, sometimes for years, to win national monument designation near their communities. But most of all, it represented an assault on low-income communities and people of color — the many underrepresented Americans who so often bear the brunt of environmental contamination and a lack of access to parks and nature.

Anyone who has witnessed the delight of city kids gathered around a campfire knows how important this is. Watching a black teenager’s self-esteem soar after her first kayaking adventure, listening to a Latina youth advocate describe the sense of freedom she finds in the mountains, talking to elderly Asian hikers carrying on outdoor traditions that span generations, it’s easy to see how important access to public lands is — particularly to people of color. Recent national monument designations have helped tell the stories of American heroes like Harriet Tubman and Cesar Chavez, memorialized the struggle for women’s and LGBT rights, and marked the history of Japanese internment camps. It’s so much easier to find common ground when we have insight into each other’s history and experience.

But instead of celebrating our parks and national monuments, this administration issues threats and proposes budget cuts. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent comments about Bears Ears National Monument in Utah were an outright insult to Native Americans and the Inter-Tribal Coalition that fought to win protections for their sacred lands, which for years have been left vulnerable to grave-robbing, looting and vandalism. Also targeted by the review, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument — a crucial source of fresh air, clean water and healthy recreation for more than 10 million people in Los Angeles County — including African American, Asian and Latino neighborhoods hemmed in by concrete and freeways.

One perpetual argument favoring the roll back of national monument designations is the lack of federal funds for proper management. But that point rings hollow, given the current administration has proposed $1.5 billion in budget cuts to the Department of the Interior — the agency responsible for our National Park System and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

We cannot afford to play politics with national treasures. Our parks and national monuments deserve even greater protection, not threats and budget cuts. These lands are something we all own, together — from the lush trails of Rock Creek Park, just a few miles from the White House, to our most iconic western landscapes. We need nature now, more than ever — not only as a last refuge for plants and wildlife, and a source of fresh air and water, but also as a place to gather and find mutual respect under an open sky. Our national monuments and public lands offer us one of the best settings to rediscover our humanity, and to heal as a nation.

About the authors

Both authors are Governing Council members at The Wilderness Society, the leading organization protecting our nation’s shared public lands since 1935.

Mr. Hagood worked for 30 years at the Department of Interior, including a position as Director of Training and Education with the National Park Service. He also served as Co-Chair for the Green Leadership Trust and Senior Vice President for the Student Conservation Association.

Mr. Martinez is a National Geographic Explorer, TED Speaker, and a proud product of south central Los Angeles. He serves as Director, Leadership Development & Natural Leaders Network at the Children & Nature Network and strives to empower the next generation of conservation and outdoor recreation leaders.