Interior Department has lost sight of its mission

navajo nation monument valley
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navajo nation monument valley

The U.S. Department of the Interior is supposed to protect and manage the nation’s “natural resources and cultural heritage.” Interior is supposed to provide “scientific and other information about those resources.” Interior is supposed to honor “special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated Island Communities.”

This is the stated mission of the Interior Department. While the Interior Department has not always kept this promise to our citizens, especially those of tribal nations, in the past few decades there was evidence of change. In the 1990s two memos were published that prioritized protecting vulnerable communities and Native American sacred sites. Some progress, admittedly not enough, was being made.

{mosads}But now that progress is being undone. Not only undone but erased. A recent article in The Nation highlights how the Interior Department quietly rescinded these two important memos. The article sites our own San Juan county where citizens have long dealt with the health and economic consequences of oil and gas development and it’s by product methane as ground zero for the new policy. By adopting an “energy dominance” mandate for our public lands, science, cultural protection, and citizen input is being actively pushed off the table.

We saw this during last year’s national monuments review. Despite evidence of important cultural sites and overwhelming opposition from Americans, the Interior Department recommended shrinking monuments in Utah and making management changes elsewhere. It came out later, thanks to leaked emails and memos within the Interior Department, that oil and gas and coal were the main motivators behind the review — putting extraction and profits before the protection of Native American sites and culturally important or vulnerable populations that could be in harm’s way.

The Interior Department owes it to all Americans to manage our land and cultural sites in a balanced way. They especially owe this to sovereign tribal nations and our country’s most vulnerable communities. This doesn’t mean never building a new oil and gas well or shutting down every coal plant tomorrow. It means using science and community feedback to do the least harm where these industries operate.

Our country has a long history of environmental injustice that in some cases was finally beginning to be addressed. Rescinding these memos that aimed to protect the first inhabitants of our country and some of our most disenfranchised populations only sets us backward and harms all of our water, air, and wildlife.

Unfortunately, this move isn’t surprising given this administration’s attacks on our public lands, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Environmental Policy Act. But it’s important for those of us who are impacted by these decisions to speak up, and it’s arguably even more important for those of us who aren’t directly impacted to speak up for those who are. This administration’s continued attacks on our nation’s cultural history and public lands hurts all Americans.

Because as Theodore Roosevelt — the president who established many of our first public lands put it — “This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

Susan Torres is communications director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is a nonprofit organization that advocates for public land access and protection.

Tags national monuments public lands Ryan Zinke Susan Torres

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