On the very first day of the 2017 Congressional session, House GOP members voted to change how Congress calculates land costs in order to make it easier to transfer public lands to states for auction. It was a move that set the tone for their approach to environmental protections at large. Next, the House reversed a coal-mining regulation issued under the Obama administration to protect water sources. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been issuing widespread rollbacks on policy. The head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, spent his law career attempting to destroy major regulations regarding water and the environment. Recently, he withdrew the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era law that regulated greenhouse gas emissions; eased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks; and publicly cast doubt on the EPA’s own scientific research about human impacts on climate.
Picture what’s at stake. Millions of years ago, all this was underwater. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is at its highest level since the mid-Pliocene era, when sea levels were over sixty feet higher. But it’s hard to wrap your head around that kind of scale. Depending on which geologist you ask, the whole solar system is only about 4.6 billion years old. In another approximately 5 billion years, the sun will burn out, killing all life on Earth. In geologic time, we’re middle-aged—but surely not yet wiser.
Near the Black Hills in South Dakota, Exit 61 shoots past big-box stores and shaved winter fields as it leads into Rapid City. Pickup trucks and rusted minivans lurch in and out of the La Grand gas station, which doubles as the Call of the Wild Museum. Behind a stuffed lion, customers in winter coats buy soda and pay for gas. The museum features “one-of-a-kind taxidermy,” large animal trophies from hunts from around the world.
Humankind’s claim to wilderness is still a question of some debate in Rapid City. Nearby, Mount Rushmore draws 3 million tourists a year—an influx of people, pavement, and candy wrappers into an area held sacred by Native Americans. Though the Black Hills were declared an Indian Reservation in a treaty in 1868, gold was discovered there in 1874, prompting Congress to force Native Americans to give up their claim. The resulting national memorial is considered by some a desecration of the tribe’s holy land. The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the Black Hills had been seized illegally, and in 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recommended that the Black Hills be returned to the Lakota, saying “The sense of loss, alienation, and indignity is pervasive.”
Today, a gigantic sculpted portrait of Crazy Horse, one of the Oglala Lakota leaders of the Black Hills Wars, is emerging, after decades of work, from a rock cliff just sixteen miles away from the looming presidents. But not all of the Lakota support the idea of creating their own version of Mount Rushmore. John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota activist, wrote in his memoir, “The whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape. It is against the spirit of Crazy Horse.” Memorials, whether in skins or stone, are a tricky thing—who should get to decide what to preserve?
On a clear day, the view over Yosemite Valley is majestic, awe-inspiring despite its canned familiarity as an Apple desktop background. But the national park often struggles with smog so thick that it can block the iconic views. The smog migrates out of industrial areas in California’s Central Valley, melding with pollutants blown in from the Bay Area. Ozone, for example, is a caustic gas that can cause burning inside the lungs. Prolonged exposure can lead to permanent lung damage.
Yosemite isn’t the only national park that often fails current EPA standards for air pollution: Some parks, including several in California, regularly have air that’s unhealthy for visitors and rangers. The iconic Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, was intended to control air pollution on a federal level. In 2007, the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases should be included under these regulations; Pruitt’s EPA disagrees.
All of these issues came to a head the first week of December 2017, as President Donald J. Trump attempted to rollback a previously unchallenged power of the presidency—to establish national monuments. In front of the Utah State Capitol, Trump announced he was shrinking Bears Ears National Monument, a landscape sacred to indigenous tribes, by 85 percent. The move met widespread opposition and sparked protests. “This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history,” responded activists at the outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia. “The president stole your land.”
While it’s not yet clear if President Trump’s actions will hold up in court, it’s painfully clear that there’s a widening partisan rift playing out over the most precious American resource—our land itself.
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.