People who fought for, and thought they had saved, national monuments years ago in this state are mobilizing to fight all over again. So it goes in the chaotic, exhausting era of Trump.
I interrupted Rich Steele, 82, while he was out hunting turkey. So he didn’t have his thoughts fully formed.
“I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do, because I thought we were long done with this,” Steele, of Richland, fumed. “But I can tell you, we’re gonna fight.”
Sally Reeve, of Lopez Island, also couldn’t talk long, because her sheep were at that moment giving birth. But she said her fellow San Juan islanders already are mobilizing the troops.
“We’re pretty worried up here,” Reeve, 61, said Tuesday. “There’s going to be a heckuva fight if they come after this monument.”
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Steele and Reeve live on different sides of the state. But as two of the key citizens who campaigned for years to establish separate national monuments, here, they now find themselves united. In resistance to President Trump.
This week the president is set to sign an executive order that reportedly would launch a review of national monument designations made in the past 21 years, with an eye toward revising or reversing some of them. That could cover 54 monuments in 22 states.
Property-rights and states’-rights advocates have long argued that presidents overreach and trample local control when they unilaterally set aside lands for protection.
In this state there are three national monuments. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was created in 1982, so it is outside this review. But the other two are newer. Hanford Reach, the last undammed, free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the U.S., was created by President Bill Clinton in 2000. The San Juan Islands National Monument was established by President Barack Obama in 2013.
Hanford Reach, outside the Tri-Cities, was hugely controversial in its day. Farmers and other business interests all fought against preserving 195,000 acres around the Hanford nuclear reservation, and sued even after Clinton ordered it off-limits to development forever in 2000.
At that point, Steele, a former Hanford plutonium worker, had been campaigning for the wild river for an incredible 35 years. A fly fisherman, he is famed for running governors, members of Congress, and hordes of media on save-the-river tours on his fishing boat, the Can Do II.
Steele says he got a sinking feeling last November that he might be forced out of retirement.
“I’ve been worried ever since that real-estate developer got elected,” he said. “Some people are just greedy for land.”
Trump’s executive order hasn’t been released yet. But multiple news outlets said the administration especially wants to revise or flat-out reverse two monuments in Utah (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante) and possibly one in Maine.
But Steele said once they start down the road of undoing monument designations, “some people will start saying ‘hey, we want to develop this land over here, too.’ ”
No president has tried to undo a monument since the first one was created in 1906 (Congress has abolished a few, mostly in the 1950s). Monuments are fashioned only out of land already owned by the government.
The San Juans monument was far less controversial than Hanford Reach. It’s about 1,000 acres of scattered small islands and coastline. Together, it was an attempt to keep future industrial uses, such as gravel mining, from sullying the island group.
Some reports Tuesday night suggested the order might cover only larger monuments.
“We’re hoping Trump will say ‘oh it’s just those pinko greenies out there on the coast,’ and he’ll leave us alone,” Reeve, of Lopez Island, said. “We’re very small and off the grid. So maybe we’ll slip under the radar.”
Politically, it’s tough to figure why any president would want to reopen hugely complex natural-resource fights in multiple states simultaneously. But Trump, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not a normal president.
I don’t think in the end he’s going to get our national monuments, or probably any state’s monuments. His batting average on executive orders so far is in Mike Zunino territory.
But Trump has gotten the old turkey hunter to come down out of the woods, and the sheep farmer to come in from the field. Both to prepare to re-fight old battles long settled.
“There’s going to be lawsuits, and it’s going to take a lot of time and resources for everyone,” Reeve said. “It’s hardly a healthy way for a democracy to function.”
As the comedian Jon Stewart joked recently: “The presidency is supposed to age the president. Not the public.”