Sleeping Giants

(Photo: William Dotinga)

It’s become a daily occurrence that some piece of news out of the White House drives me to a strange combination of rage and overwhelming sadness. A recent “winner:” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s final list of national monuments to either be downsized or eliminated altogether.

I could spend this entire column upbraiding Zinke for pretending to be an outdoorsman out of one side of his mouth while doing the bidding of an administration hell-bent on selling off our most precious national treasures to the highest digging, drilling or extracting bidder.

That would be a waste of time and the 1,000 words I’m given.

Instead, I’ll appeal to the public’s desire for clean air, clean water and unfettered, unspoiled enjoyment of the truly amazing natural places this nation has to offer. Polls consistently show these basic needs are what the public wants, and how a president so obsessed with appearances and what the public thinks of him can miss these particular polls and proceed to do exactly the opposite of what the public wants done with our natural jewels is beyond me.

A trip down that rabbit hole, trying to figure out the presidential psyche – also a waste of time.

On the president’s order, Zinke has compiled a list of 27 national monuments up for obliteration. Think that word’s too strong? National monument status means the land, and the resources contained within, are untouchable. It is sacred ground, nationally speaking. Without the protection, they’re just plots of land that can be exploited by someone who has spent his life putting profit ahead of everything.

As I scanned Zinke’s list of apparently expendable national monuments – all set aside or expanded by the last three presidents – the weight of the historical implications of this administration’s decision to even broach the topic knocked me over.

No president has ever revoked any monument created by a predecessor. Congress can, but rarely does because (as noted above) the public loves their public lands.

This president knows no history other than his own, and then only if profit was involved. And so 33 groves of ancient sequoias in Central California – the largest living things by volume, among the oldest living things on earth, living beings so fragile they only grow naturally in a 60-mile-wide band in a small portion of the Western Sierra – have made his chopping block.

Or perhaps will be fashioned into a chopping block, if that’s something redwood is used for.

Those who haven’t seen the giant sequoias in person, in their natural habitat, may not understand the travesty that someone is even considering removing protections from them. “Majestic” is an understatement. To walk beneath them in the stillness of a grove is like being in the presence of something beyond us.

They’re enormous, towering 180, 200, even up to 300 feet above the forest floor. At their base, you can park two sedans end-to-end and still see tree trunk on either side.

And they’re old. The oldest known sequoia is 3,500 years old. It’s a humbling experience to stand in a grove and know you’re surrounded by beings far older than most of humanity’s achievements, that seeds that became the trees you can touch today fell and took root and grew as the pyramids in Egypt went up half a world away and two of the world’s major religions were still just stories being passed down from generation to generation.

The last of California’s sequoia groves have withstood millennia of the Golden State’s famous wildfires, because they have a layer of bark three feet thick and redwood is naturally resistant to fire. In fact, without wildfires there would be few sequoias at all since fire is one of the few things powerful enough to crack open their small cones and release the seeds inside – not to mention naturally clearing space in the forest for them to reach for the sun.

After a century of aggressive logging to satiate the national need for lumber – even though sequoia wood is too brittle to be used for anything but shingles and matchsticks – the public demanded protection for them. President Bill Clinton answered by creating Giant Sequoia National Monument in 2000.

Seventeen years later, the current president – whose idea of the outdoors is a well-manicured golf course bearing his name – has other ideas, for the sequoias and 26 other places so special his predecessors thought they should be protected for all time. Why? Environmentalists note the presence of fossil fuels beneath several of the targeted monuments, and the current administration’s glee in doing whatever the oil and gas industry asks of him.

And of course there’s the president’s apparent disdain for anything done by his predecessor, who set aside 265 million acres of land and ocean for the public good.

“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice,” the Developer-in-Chief, wielder of cement trucks and bulldozers, said when he ordered the Interior Department review in April.

Except it does. Congress gave presidents the authority to lock up federal lands and create national monuments by presidential proclamation. Sixteen presidents have done so over 100 times “for the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest,” as the act says. And while the act has been amended twice by Congress in response to unpopular presidential expansions – special amendments that apply only to Wyoming and Alaska – a president has never unilaterally eliminated the antiquities set aside by a predecessor.

Until now.

Whether the current administration will be end of the giant sequoia – already listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – remains to be seen. I suppose it depends on whether they grow on top of something worth extracting in the name of profit. But I do know that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to stand up to his shenanigans if we want a world with clean air, clean water and free access to the most beautiful places in the United States.

And if, given the climate change we’ve brought upon ourselves, we want to live at all.

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