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National Monuments get their future back

President Biden's restoration of three national monuments — two on Utah land and one off the coast of New England — starkly contrasts with what could have happened under the dismantling of their environmental protections by Donald Trump.

A National Monument is to a National Park as the Statue of Liberty is to Yellowstone, although Americans are far more familiar with the parks system. A president makes both designations under the 1906 Antiquities Act, first used by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Biden's action restored the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and the management conditions of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine Mational Monument. Grand-Staircase Escalante had been a National Monument since 1996. President Obama designated monument status for the other two in 2016.

Together the three sites are home to historic and sacred spaces for indigenous peoples, rare fossilized dinosaurs and rare living bees, and an intact underwater ecosystem of canyons and undersea mountains. Early in his administration, Trump carved away millions of acres from the monument land and re-opened the sea canyons and mountains for commercial fishing.

Both the Obama and Trump actions faced immediate lawsuits. Many commercial fishermen here and throughout New England were upset by Obama's restrictions on fishing and the seven-year deadline for an end to lobstering and crabbing. Some joined in a lawsuit and eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined in March to hear the case.

Preservationists and tribal leaders approved the Obama action but filed multiple suits after Trump left the amputated areas of former monument lands potentially open for drilling and mining. Presumably most if not all the cases are now moot.

Words can hardly convey the beauty, complexity and uniqueness of each of the three sites. The canyons and sea mount monument, at 4,913 square miles, is slightly larger than the state of Connecticut and lies 150 miles out to sea, near the edge of the Georges Bank fishing grounds. It includes extinct volcanoes and a series of deep and shallow canyons and is home to deep-sea corals, endangered species of whales and sea turtles, and creatures we as yet have no names for. 

Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the darkest places in the country, without light pollution; it was the last place in the contiguous states to be mapped. Scientists and archaeologists and geologists make constant discoveries there. The land is important in the history of tribal nations and pioneers.

Five tribes had worked for years to get National Monument designation for Bears Ears, which is not only sacred to tribal members but an important anthropological site for the history of the Americas. A re-activated commission of tribal members will advise the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service on governance of the monument.

Avoiding harm to unspoiled places is one way humans can lessen further damage to our planet. Contrast preservation, protection of species, living landscapes, intact ecosystems, and the history written in fossils and human traces with mass extinctions, damaged ecosystems, polluted land and water, and drilling, dynamiting and dredging. Which will work better for humans and all other species, now and in the future?

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, being not far offshore from here, has had its local advocates. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, is a former governor of the Ocean State, Rhode Island. Her department has responsibility for managing the monument. Raimondo knows well the challenges faced by the commercial fishing industry, but in a statement she pointed to the sustainability of the planet and scientific knowledge as critical.

Mystic Aquairum officials attended the White House ceremony last week. Peter Auster, a Mystic Aquarium senior research scientist who previously taught marine science at UConn Avery Point, was instrumental in getting the designation in 2016. We should pay attention to what he had to say that day: that the national marine monument gives scientists a chance to learn about how an undisturbed ocean functions.

"There's always something new to discover and describe that helps us piece together how life works on our planet," Auster said. "And the monument gives the science community a place to explore that's undisturbed by human activities, it shows us what the ocean would look like in so many other places if we didn't do so many things." 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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