Observers who track such things noted last week that the president doesn’t travel much. Since taking office, he has not been west of the Mississippi. His destinations have been limited to rallies in Eastern states that voted for him and Trump-branded golf resorts.
He needs to get out more.
One inviting opportunity recently surfaced in Texas: A river outfitter specializing in Rio Grande rafting trips through Big Bend National Park offered a free tour for the president and any members of his Cabinet who might care to tag along.
“I’ve got the boats,” said river guide Charlie Angell in an interview aired on National Public Radio. “I’ve got the paddles and life jackets. We'll give him a free lunch.”
A firsthand view, Angell reasons, might underscore the point that building a border wall through the spectacular national park would be disastrous.
In practical terms, it’s unnecessary: There are fewer border crossings, illegal or otherwise, through Big Bend than nearly anyplace else along the U.S.-Mexico border because of the region’s isolated, rugged terrain.
Yet it’s politically vulnerable. Because the national park is federally owned, expensive and time-consuming land condemnation lawsuits would be unnecessary. An administration that values rushed-up symbolic political gestures, sometimes to the exclusion of pragmatic common sense, could view the park as an easy target for quick wall-building, despite the environmental calamity it would create.
By all means, Angell’s offer should be accepted. The views of the 1,000-foot cliffs along Santa Elena Canyon in the heart of the park are images that remain in the human imagination for a lifetime. Who could turn down such a generous opportunity?
Likewise, perhaps the president could make personal visits to some, or all, of the 27 national monuments that are currently jeopardized due to his recent executive order.
Last month, he ordered the Interior Department to review federal protections established by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for significant wilderness areas. Five are marine reserves in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; virtually all of the rest are starkly beautiful sites in the American West.
The monuments have been designated under the century-old Antiquities Act, established in 1906 under President Theodore Roosevelt. Even then, conservationists recognized the vulnerability of the nation’s spectacular natural treasures.
These designations were put in place specifically to resist commercial exploitation and preserve these majestic sites for present and future generations. Some of the land is sacred to Native Americans, relationships that predate European exploration by countless millennia.
Yet the president is now hearing from people who want to return these lands to states and localities that are often ill-equipped to manage them. He has been all too willing to lend an ear to anti-government activists who decry federal protection as a “land grab.”
Yes, there’s a land grab in the works. It’s being waged by self-serving short-term interests trying to claw back resources that are jointly owned by all Americans and are part of our heritage and our birthright.
The monuments under review include Arizona’s Sonoran Desert National Monument, a ghostly desert forest of towering saguaro cacti, and a magnificent preserve of massive, ancient trees at Giant Sequoia National Monument in California.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho is a haunting inland moonscape of dormant volcanoes and lava fields.
Offshore monuments include spectacular marine wildlife habitats near New England, American Samoa and Hawaii, among others.
Why jeopardize these irreplaceable natural sites?
Much of the political component of this measure can be traced to Utah, where some local and state officials fought bitterly against Obama’s decision to designate more than a million acres as Bears Ears National Monument. The monument, home to ancient cliff dwellings and thousands of other ancient archaeological sites, has long been a priority for both conservationists (who note the region’s ecological significance) and Native Americans (who cite the land’s central role in their own culture and history).
Local residents and elected officials have decried protection put in place for Bears Ears, voicing concern about its potential limitations on mining and energy extraction, as well as on use of motor vehicles.
This week, the monument was visited by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is touring some of the sites in preparation for making recommendations to the White House about whether to roll back or even erase the designations.
Despite a tightly controlled schedule and strict limits on press coverage, Zinke is at least putting in a personal appearance, and says he is keeping an open mind.
It would be heartening, however, for the president himself to see firsthand some of the sites he has already castigated as “federal overreach” and “land grabs.”
Our natural heritage belongs to all of us. It’s intertwined with our history, our future, and our identity as Americans.
Seeing the magnificent sequoias or saguaros or other uniquely American treasures is unforgettable. It’s good for the soul, if you have one.
So by all means, let’s be careful about a “land grab” of our precious, jointly owned resources. We can’t afford it.