When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)
It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.
1. “In Utah, The Fight for a Bears Ears Monument Heats Up” (Jonathan Thompson, High Country News, May 2016)
Late last year, President Obama signed a law to create Bears Ears National Monument—a sweeping, 1.35 million-acre parcel of Utah land filled with canyons, vistas, and Native American sites. Jonathan Thompson chronicles the furor behind Obama’s controversial designation of this federal land, as some tribal groups lobbied hard for the monument, while others thought the land should be open to private settlement. The result was an ugly fight that spewed into hyperbole and even threats, highlighting the opposed interests of conservationists and land-use advocates.
San Juan County was already a prime battleground in the Western land wars. The majority of land in the county is federally managed, and locals had long had almost unrestrained freedom there to graze cows, build roads, stake uranium mining claims and collect ancient artifacts — a sort of community hobby. So they balked when bureaucrats from Washington — colonizers, in the words of the late county commissioner and sagebrush rebel Cal Black — tried to impinge on those freedoms by kicking cows or vehicles off the land or otherwise “protecting” it.
Black helped launch the 1970s version of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and it flared up again in 1986 after the Blanding homes of suspected pothunters were raided by federal agents using, as Black put it, “gestapo” tactics. Meanwhile, environmentalists, with Maryboy’s support, were pushing for wilderness designation for various Utah Bureau of Land Management lands, including on and near Cedar Mesa. The mayor of Blanding at the time, Jim Shumway, responded with a threat of armed resistance. “We will give no more lands,” he said. “We are tired of the wilderness terrorists.”
2. “Smokey and the Bandit” (Tim Murphy, Washington Monthly, January 2014)
Should federal lands be altered by private citizens? It’s a question that might seem moot once a site has been taken over by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, or other federal agencies. But Dan Snyder, the defiant owner of the Washington Redskins, proved that everything’s negotiable when he pressured the Bush administration into removing trees from the scenic, federally-managed Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park so his mansion would have a better view. A whistleblower tried to expose the scheme, but it turns out that when it comes to some federal lands, no good deed goes unpunished.
By April of 2004, with his new home nearing completion and still no progress on the trees, Snyder was growing frustrated and [National Parks Service special assistant] Smith was determined to settle the matter. That spring, according to the inspector general’s report, Smith met with Snyder’s attorney for a business lunch at the Potomac estate, where Snyder had just completed an expansion to build a massive new ballroom, and followed it up with a phone call to the park official who dealt with land acquisitions. Over the phone, the official told the investigators, Smith seemed agitated that nothing had been done yet, and suggested an exit strategy, which he later alleged had come from the Redskins’ attorney: most of the trees in question were nonnative; why not clear-cut them and call it an exotic-plant extermination program?
3. “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream” (Kathryn Joyce, Huffington Post Highline, March 2016)
Women haven’t always been welcome in the great outdoors. In the 1980s, a group of women filed a civil suit to increase the number of women in the Forest Service of California from 7 to 43 percent, but female federal workers in the parks department have continued to be mismanaged and harassed. Joyce exposes a legacy of discrimination and sexual harassment in federal heritage agencies, one that’s made even scarier by the isolation and scale of some of the land women park rangers help protect.
Around 2008, Denice Rice was a captain being groomed for promotion when she was befriended by her boss’ boss, a division chief named Mike Beckett. After about a year, their interactions took on a different tone. By Rice’s account, Beckett would describe sexual dreams he’d had about her and comment on her body. When they texted about work, he responded with crass double entendres. He cornered her in the office, followed her into the bathroom, and tried to touch her or lift her shirt. She said he groped or touched her inappropriately at least 20 times.
Even when she was out in the field, Rice felt as if there was no escape. Sometimes Beckett would wait late for her to return to the office. He took to radioing in to ask her location and seemed to monitor the line for word of her whereabouts: He’d appear, unannounced, when she was in some remote location—say, a tower lookout high in the Sierras. “He was paying a lot of attention to an employee three to four pay grades below him, which is uncommon,” recalled Rice’s former direct supervisor, who still works at the Forest Service. “He was constantly going around me.”
4. “The Deadly Allure of Longs Peak” (Stephen Meyers and Adrian Garcia, The Coloradoan, December 2014)
Longs Peak is 14,259-foot-tall Colorado icon within Rocky Mountain National Park. The summit’s appeal is clear—it’s a scenic challenge with serious bragging rights—but it’s also deadly, injuring hundreds each year and killing more than 60 people since the park was created, often due to icy conditions, unpredictable weather, altitude, or hiker hubris.
It cost the Rocky Mountain National Park Service $41,000 to rescue Canadian Samuel Frappier after he got stuck on Longs Peak’s technical East Face for nearly three days in May. The rescue team used 46 people and two helicopters to safely airlift the 19-year-old from the mountain.
Frappier was only wearing a T-shirt, workout pants and sneakers when he set out to hike the challenging mountain with a friend. After being rescued, he called the decision “stupid.”
Hikers and climbers do not enter the park thinking they will need help, but conditions can change quickly.
“I’ve gone up to climb in the middle of summer, and I see people wearing shorts, Chaco sandals and swinging their water bottle. That’s all they have to climb Longs Peak,” Ley said. “Fortunately, on most occasions people are lucky, and they get away with it.”
5. “Dining in the Wilderness: The Restaurants in America’s National Parks” (Amy McKeever, Eater, August 2015)
National parks feed millions of guests each year, but it turns out that helping visitors to federal lands get their grub on isn’t just a matter of pulling out a few paper plates and a sandwich — each park must tailor its offerings to a specific interpretive mission, all the while keeping sustainability and health in mind.
At Cades Cove in Tennessee, staff worries about bears, so concessions need to have hoodless and greaseless equipment. In Muir Woods, California, chefs are not allowed to do any baking on-site because the scent will attract animals.
Some of these challenges are self-imposed among the concessioners, but National Park Service regulations play a role. The Park Service contracts are meant to ensure that America’s parks are friendly to all. These contracts vary from park to park, but one regulation that’s standard across the board is price comparability. The general public feels that the parks have a monopoly over concessions, says Harlow, so the National Park Service is tasked with making sure they don’t. Where a McDonald’s in a remote location can jack up its prices, national parks must conduct comparability studies with restaurants in nearby cities and towns to ensure their prices are fair.
6. “The Patriot: How Philanthropist David Rubenstein Helped Save a Tax Break Billionaires Love” (Alec MacGillis, ProPublica, March 2016)
Is it possible to make money while pouring cash into federal lands? For at least one philanthropist, the answer is yes. MacGillis turns his sights on David Rubenstein, a billionaire whose highest-profile investment—paying for half of the Washington Monument’s pricey remodel—helped bolster federal resources. But Rubenstein also received plenty of perks from the federal government through tax loopholes that helped him consolidate billions of dollars of wealth.
The tax break has helped private equity become one of the most lucrative sectors of the financial industry. Since the end of the recession, private equity has reported record profits, and at least eighteen private-equity executives are estimated to be worth $2 billion or more each. And during the current presidential campaign, with its populist themes, the loophole has become a target among Democrats and Republicans alike.