Opinion

Value of public lands is right before our eyes

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It’s not often that I can write a column thanking the Trump administration, but this week is the exception.

Breaking news out of the US Department of Interior has given me the chance to return to my school years and write about what I did on my summer vacation.

For that, I say thank you.

My family and I spent last week in Utah, where we visited three of the Mighty Five national parks and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

We also drove through Dixie National Forest and the San Rafael Desert.

Playing the part of the Visit Utah tourism office, I’m going to say you should go and you should take your kids, even if they’re sometimes surly teenagers, like my 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

It’s a high desert and canyon landscape like no place I have ever seen. It’s rough and beautiful. It takes a little time to cover all the ground, but the trip is worth making.

Our visit just happened to coincide with a case of accidental honesty by the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, the Department of Interior inadvertently released public documents that, according to the Washington Post, show that in its efforts to justify shrinking national monuments last year, senior administration officials blocked evidence that public lands increased tourism and helped to lead to new archaeological discoveries.

Essentially, the administration ignored evidence that was counter to the outcome that they wanted.

Grand Staircase-Escalante and Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument were among those targeted. President Donald Trump has since issued a proclamation shrinking Grand Staircase-Escalante and a second Utah monument, Bears Ears.

“The new documents show that as [US Secretary of Interior Ryan] Zinke conducted his four-month review, Interior officials rejected material that would justify keeping protections in place and sought out evidence that could buttress the case for unraveling them,” the Washington Post found.

For the years that supporters worked to create a new national monument in Maine, a project I worked on for more than five years, we consistently returned to one important fact. National parks and national monuments boost local economies and help them to diversify. The evidence was present all over the country, where visitation to national parks topped 330 million visits in 2017.

Outside of Bryce Canyon National Park, we stayed at a marginal motor lodge that hasn’t seen much in the way of capital improvements since they replaced the doorknobs with electronic locks – and just roughly patched the old holes.

The staff was friendly but the pool came complete with a sunken chair and the shades on the lights were replaced with wire cages. The night we stayed, there were no vacancies. In fact, the place is booked solid for weeks with rates at $200 a night and up.

Let me just say, the word “resort” does not mean the same thing in Southern Utah that it means in other places.

In Torrey, Utah, between Bryce and Grand Staircase and Capitol Reef National Park there are guide services, cafes and pizza places. It’s a small town, isolated, but that hasn’t hampered an outdoor recreation economy.

And in Moab, the closest town to Arches National Park, there is a full-fledged outdoor recreation economy that includes everything from zip lines to llama treks, Jeep tours to white water rafting on the Green River.

The Arches National Park was packed – despite an over four-hour drive from the nearest city and temperatures topping 107 degrees. The town was bustling and the Jeeps were headed out into the desert. The restaurants were packed and the prices rivaled Portland.

And to the point about archaeological discoveries, just last Thursday the impressive Utah Natural History Museum unveiled a previously undiscovered dinosaur uncovered in Grand Staircase, one of the greatest sites for fossils anywhere.

There was a time when we could all agree that seeing is believing, but given the current state of politics, maybe seeing isn’t enough anymore.

Visit Utah’s Mighty Five and you can see for yourself the power of public lands to draw people, to expand economic opportunity to rural areas and to protect our country’s natural legacy.

The United States is blessed with breath-taking wilderness diversity and many still-wild places. We need to protect them.

And we have to stop ignoring the evidence right in front of our eyes.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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