On December 4, Donald Trump swaggered onto a stage in Utah’s sprawling granite capitol building and declared before an adoring crowd of local politicians and conservative activists that he would radically shrink two national monuments in the state’s wild and arid southeastern region.
“I don’t think it is controversial, actually,” he told his audience, without irony. “I think it is so sensible.”
The audience laughed and clapped and cheered. Then the president sat down and signed an order that dismembered both the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument and the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Designated for protection by President Obama and President Clinton respectively, the two monuments were meant to preserve red-rock landscapes rich in intricate topography, ancient artifacts, and Native American sacred sites. They were meant to protect forever federal land owned by all Americans. But with a stroke of his pen Trump eradicated those protections, shrinking the monuments by a collective 2 million acres and raising the prospect that the terrain they occupied may someday be open to uranium mining, coal extraction, or oil and gas drilling.
As the ink on his presidential order dried, Trump mingled onstage with prominent county commissioners, Utah’s congressional delegation, and the governor. The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared over loud speakers in the background.
The Salt Lake Tribune, in a blistering editorial later that week, called the gleeful event “downright sickening.” It was, according to the Tribune, a “disgraceful display of hubris” that showed Utah “at its very worst.”
But the conservative operatives and politicians onstage were apparently too pleased to care about optics—and not without reason. Trump’s attack on the two national monuments, after all, wasn’t just a lucky break, a gift that fell from the sky. Rather, it was the result of a savvy, multiyear campaign by a network of far-right organizations with powerful friends in Washington and financial backing from dark-money funds tied to the billionaire Koch brothers and their political kin.
Led by organizations like Utah’s Sutherland Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, and an array of allies, this network has labored assiduously over the last few years to undermine the legitimacy of federal lands across the American West. It has done this, in part, by working to erode public support for key conservation laws and institutions, including the Antiquities Act of 1906. And it has had great success.
Trump’s trip to Utah, his decision to destroy the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante monuments, is a consequence of that deeper, long-game campaign to chip away at America’s conservation system.