Vigliotti: God’s Earth itself — Trump, conservatives and the environment

President Donald Trump made the right call to re-designate federal land in Utah. Opponents are contending that this is theft, par for conservatives and the environment, and will lead to environmental disaster. None of these claims is true.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 permits the president to issue a proclamation to protect items, structures and other objects of prehistoric, historic and scientific importance through control of the smallest possible area around the item of interest. Trump’s re-designation of land at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments maintains the land under government control: the important features of these lands remain strictly protected while the rest of it is now accessible to the public. Trump’s decision is not about land being stolen; but it is about land, in essence, being returned.


Some opponents have argued that this is a ploy by greedy, free-market advocates to expose the land purely for profit. In reality, it has not been given to oil companies or billionaire corporations that want to decimate it, but remains under federal control.

It is easy to make a leap in logic for some on the left — that to support free markets means supporting corporations who pummel the environment ruthlessly and without regard for anything except a profit margin. We conservatives support free markets, and yes, we conservatives support companies that employ thousands and responsibly produce things which benefit millions more — but we do not support reckless destruction.

Interestingly enough, sentiments among others on the left regarding conservatives and the land present a paradox. When it is convenient, conservatives are often branded “backwoods,” “uneducated,” “rednecks” and “hicks” among other demeaning terms for our love of agriculture, farmland, hunting, nature and seeking to live off the land. Now, they claim conservatives hate the environment. Those liberals cannot have it both ways: Either conservatives must care nothing for the land (as they say in the case of Trump and Utah), or are hopelessly wedded to the land like some sort of holdover landed aristocracy. Neither of these is true.

In his book “Grand Strategies,” Charles Hill notes that, historically, to live in accord with nature was Greek, while to subdue nature was Roman. I believe that, for Americans, the truth rests between these two. Conservatism has long recognized the Catholic position on the natural world: that we are stewards of God’s Earth, meant for use but not to abuse, and to tend and care for in the knowledge that our survival depends upon nature. Conservatives have a deep and abiding love and respect for the land, for nature, for the environment because we recognize its importance both as a value in itself, and as necessary for our survival as human beings and a nation. We recognize a great history in the land, a rootedness in home as philosophers like Roger Scruton have spoken about. And notice the important construction of the word “conservative” itself: by no accident, it includes “conserve” which means that we conservatives wish to hold onto that which is moral, best, necessary and crucial to our world and our culture. That includes the natural world.

Still, some opponents will contend that this re-designation is a ploy to exploit natural energy resources. The truth is that conservatives favor an all-of-the-above approach to energy as we Americans seek to revolutionize the industry and our modes of transportation. That includes rolling back some regulations and relying on fossil fuels at the moment until better, more cost-efficient energy sources come along. (Just as we do not want to harm nature, we do not want to harm humankind.) At the same time, energy-producing industries have improved their capacity for extraction, refinement and delivery of these products. Nothing is perfect, but the energy industry of 2017 is not what it was in 1977. No conservative, and no farmer, wants to see his or her land decimated by a strip mine — but the farmer does want safe harnessing and delivery of the fuel that will power his farm equipment to sow and harvest fields of crops. Likewise, Trump is not calling for drilling or mining in Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Still, many on the left accuse many on the right of only wanting to damage the environment, saying that we have desecrated — and are still desecrating — a historically pure landscape with Trump’s move. In the book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” the idea that America was an untouched, immaculate landscape before the arrival of Europeans is deconstructed. Great cities of thousands of people, like Cahokia, were common, as were methods of land management such as burning great swaths of wilderness to improve hunting yields. The point here is not to make comparison justifications or to cast aspersions, but underscore the point that human beings have had a long, storied and complex relationship with the North American continent as we have sought to determine the best relationship between us and that which sustains us. Again, we conservatives see use of the land as an exercise in responsibility toward ourselves, our culture, our country and God’s Earth itself.

How to determine that relationship continues. Just as Trump has undone some of what then-President Barack Obama did with the Antiquities Act, so too may the next president undo what Trump has done. Executive activity often lasts only so long as a president is in power, or unless his successors agree with his actions. For a lasting solution to support responsible use and common-sense protection of the environment, a better framework needs to be implemented by Congress. Until then, at least, cattle can graze on, and the public can again visit certain lands previously restricted to them in Utah.