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Ecologically Critical National Monument Lands are Under Attack

By Nate B. Edelman, Benjamin Goulet, and Dakota McCoy

Amidst an ongoing effort in Washington to shrink existing National Monuments and restrict the creation of new ones, the deceptively titled “National Monument Creation and Protection Act” recently passed the House Natural Resources Committee. This follows the Trump administration’s review of 27 National Monuments, which drove many of Americans to argue for the cultural, historical, and economic value of these monuments in public comments.

In our own comment, co-written with Jess Gersony and Amos Meeks, we reviewed over 200 scientific papers and documents to show that these targeted monuments are rich sources of biodiversity, habitat for endangered species, and scientific research. Despite this, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for President Trump to shrink at least four monument lands and open up 10 to formerly restricted activities such as coal mining. Zinke’s memo and the NMCPA barely mention biodiversity but could have significant, damaging effects on ecosystem health and all of the associated human benefits.

Biodiversity is essential for human health and survival. Stable, diverse ecosystems provide pollination services, water purification, and disease prevention among humans, livestock, and crops. Altogether, these global ecosystem services, which depend on the maintenance of biodiversity, are valued at $4 to 5 trillion. Further, the 22 monuments under review are quantitatively exceptional sources of biodiversity and ecosystem services compared to other land areas. Ongoing research in the monument lands shows their value.

For example, the Grand Staircase Escalante—one of the four monuments specifically targeted for reduction by Zinke—is the most scientifically productive of the monuments we reviewed. Over 50 papers have been published on work done within its territory, leading to advancements in fields as diverse as forestry, geology, and paleontology. Further, this tract of desert and piñon-juniper forest is critical habitat for many important conservation efforts, such as the well-known California Condor Recovery Program.

Thanks largely to protected lands and concentrated scientific efforts, the California Condor is one of the greatest conservation success stories of the past century. The largest bird in North America, the Condor was extinct in the wild in 1987. But through years of captive breeding and re-release, the condors have recovered significantly; now, lucky visitors can see these magnificent birds in the Grand Staircase Escalante. But condors are not just tourist attractions: Successful reintroduction programs like this one improve ecosystem health and have very real impacts on human lives.

The condor, as a scavenger, feeds on dead animals—and plays a key role in stopping the spread of infectious disease. When avian scavengers like the condor are absent, the corpses are likely to remain in the open for longer; other animals such as rats and feral dogs move in to scavenge the corpses, which increases their populations and heightens the transmission of diseases like rabies and bubonic plague to humans. By providing a safe habitat for the condor, places like Grand Staircase Escalante help reduce the spread of disease in surrounding human habitats (and reduce the need for ranchers to manually dispose of livestock corpses, an expensive process). Yet valuable services like these are generally not considered when determining the economic value of protected lands—and certainly not in Secretary Zinke’s memorandum.

The California Condor is just one particularly charismatic example. But these monuments are unusually biodiverse, with hundreds of important species under threat. Rose Atoll and Pacific Remote Islands alone house at least 30 endangered and threatened species; Secretary Zinke recommends that we cut the size of these marine monuments and open them up to fishing.

The Cascade Siskiyou, another of the four targeted monuments, is home to an endemic fish with a poignant name: the “Lost River Sucker.” This endangered fish, known as “C’waam” by the Klamath Tribes, plays a key role in water purification and healthy wetland maintenance. A diverse array of species buffers water systems against nutrient pollution. Without key species like the Lost River Sucker filling their niche in the food chain, massive algal blooms can deplete oxygen, lead to massive die-offs, and cause poor water quality.

The gigantic Desert Tortoise, which depends on habitat in Grand Staircase Escalante, is a ponderous beast which can live to be 80 years old. Because they are large and long-lived, Desert Tortoises are an “umbrella species.” This means that their protected habitat also protects hundreds of other plants and animals—many endangered themselves—including the adorable San Joaquin kit fox and the Burrowing Owl, the Internet’s favorite bird. Thus, conservation programs for the Desert Tortoise in protected monument lands lead to massive, spiraling ecosystem benefits.

Recent movements in Washington systematically undervalue the immense scientific and ecological worth of National Monument lands. When humans simplify ecosystems to“optimize” them for farming, raising cattle, or mining, we produce major losses in biodiversity; this carries negative impact comparable in scale to drought, global warming, and ocean acidification. We must remember the scientific value of these national monument lands—and the fundamental interconnectedness of ecosystem health and human well-being.

Benjamin Goulet, Dakota McCoy, and Nate B. Edelman are graduate students in life and physical sciences at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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