Unfortunately, our nation’s system of public lands, parks and national monuments were not created equitably. They are a product of Western expansion. A product of colonialism built into our country as the sandstone is built into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Native people, women, AAPI, Black and Latino communities, Indigenous tribes, have traditionally been left out of the decision-making when it comes to protecting our nation’s system of public lands.
We are hopeful that President Biden is ready to reverse that course. He has doubled his commitment to putting restorative justice at the front of every initiative. He understands that ending systemic racism cannot be an independent effort, siloed into a vacuum of dusty policy proposals, but rather must be an integral, and active, part of any infrastructure bill, any climate proposal, as well as every effort to conserve and expand public lands.
These lands, their history and their connection to the people who live there are older than our nation itself. This administration — and all administrations before and after — are charged with the sacred duty of protecting, preserving and honoring these lands while they have the power to do so.
The Biden administration has that power, specifically in the Antiquities Act, which was passed 115 years ago just this month. This important piece of legislation endows the president with the authority to designate public lands as national monuments, for historical, cultural or ecological reasons. Since its inception, the act has been used by 17 presidents to protect 129 different places. These places include civil rights monuments in the Deep South, the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree in the southwest, and sacred places such as Bears Ears National Monument.
Unfortunately, the last presidential administration failed to understand or respect the cultural and ecological significance of Bears Ears and other native lands and stripped many of the land’s crucial protections. In fact, former President Trump reduced the monument by 85 percent, opening up millions of acres of sacred land to uranium mining and energy corporations.
Bears Ears has been home to Native peoples for more than 13,000 years. Century after century, people have walked the mesas, fed their children, treated their sick and lived their histories on this land. The descendants of these tribes deserve to preserve this rich heritage, and the American government has the obligation to protect that right. The long-standing authority of the Antiquities Act combined with Biden’s renewed commitment to restorative justice is the key to keeping places like Bears Ears standing strong for the next generation of people.
We call on the Biden-Harris administration now to go one step further, to not only restore and expand protections for places like Bears Ears, but to offer protection to places where Black, Latino, Indigenous people, and people of color are asking for protection. Places like Castner Range in El Paso, Caja del Rio in New Mexico, and many others. We ask the administration to prioritize not only the expansion of protections but the closure of the nature gap — securing access to nature for all children, not just those with privilege. If this last year has taught us anything, it’s that nature isn’t a “nice-to-have,” but a necessity, critical to the mental and physical health of families and communities in cities, suburbs and rural towns alike.
We’re at a unique moment in our political history. We have an administration that has both the necessary authority via the Antiquities Act and the required ambition to make bold, long overdue, sweeping improvements to how our nation cares for the diverse land and people who form the backbone of this country. We call on this administration to exercise this authority by listening to the diverse communities across this country asking for protected public lands and access for all.
By: Maite Arce and Angel Peña for The Hill