Call me crazy, but I have declared a personal war on Ryan Zinke. Less than a year into his tenure as Interior Secretary, he has already helped guide the Trump Administration towards shrinking two national monuments, (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, both in Utah) and it is rumored that more cuts are on the way.
I should admit that I love our National Parks and all the congruent designations. My annual pass has a special place in my wallet and I have wasted more than enough time on the NPS website planning different imaginary itineraries. The idea that some areas in our country are considered universally beautiful enough or historic enough (or both) to be granted special protections has always seemed to me like the greatest gift that we can give future generations.
Before you dismiss my love as overly-sentimental naiveté, imagine the common symbols of the United States. The Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island. Mount Rushmore. The Lincoln Memorial. Independence Hall. The Liberty Bell. All of which have some sort of park service designation and all of which have been protected to ensure that present and future citizens will have that important view into the past. All of which Zinke so conveniently ignores.
Whether overtly or not, the park system undoubtedly shapes the sites that gain traction in the American cultural consciousness. The sites listed above, plus countless more, would not have made their way into our patriotic lexicon if they were not both preserved and also respected. The parks help us to determine our past, and offer perspective on the future.
Since his announcement, most of the conversation has centered on the environmental consequences of his proposed changes. While conservation efforts are a key part of the National Parks system, it is only part of the issue. Bears Ears (a National Monument in Utah managed jointly by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and a coalition of local Native leaders), should be protected because of the gorgeous land structures and the archaeological history within its boundaries. However, it also should be protected because of its sacred significance to many Native American tribes. The designation may seem small, but it is an important marker of the significance of Native American history in the larger American story.
Just as Bears Ears marks the inclusion of Native American history, the same can be said for the history of civil rights. The Stonewall Inn, a site of a major event in LGBTQ+ history, deserves a designation not simply because of that one moment, but because of the larger arc that it helped to create. The story of the LGBTQ+ movement is also the story of America. Similarly, for the fight for women’s equality in Seneca Falls, NY where women continue to gather, remember, and inspire. And for the fight for racial equality memorialized with the trail from Selma to Montgomery forever labeled and memorialized.
While certainly imperfect, America’s history cannot continue to be a collection of whitewashed relics from a time when only certain men could claim importance. The only way to continue to make our history more inclusive, is to continue to tell these stories. When Trump and Zinke are talking about taking away designations or shrinking boarders, they are not just talking about geography. It is not simply a way to save money or boost industry. These are attacks on the intersectional identity of America that many have worked so hard to build. While incomplete and imperfect, we cannot go back. And keeping the physical space and stories of our multicultural history alive is an imperative safeguard against the America they are trying to recreate.