AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS AND MONUMENTS are facing an archaic but familiar threat. In the 1870s, poachers continued to exterminate Yellowstone’s bison, even after President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law establishing Yellowstone National Park. In the 1890s, US Calvary troops had to be deployed to Yosemite to stop logging, despite its new status as a national park. And now, America’s marine national monuments are at risk of being reopened to industrial-scale commercial fishing.
But unlike past presidents, who had the courage to chase extractive industries out of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other newly created parks and monuments, President Trump is auctioning off our national treasures as if they were rusty golf clubs at his personal yard sale.
First, President Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke shrank the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah as a favor to the uranium and oil industries (and then tried to cover up their motivations).
Now — as if to test whether Trump is indeed capable of allowing the private exploitation of every inch of America’s public lands and oceans — the administration is preparing to eliminate protections for the handful of “no take” ocean areas in the United States where commercial fishing is prohibited.
This time, the order to attack America’s natural wonders will likely fall to the acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Timothy Gallaudet. In a recent speech at the Department of Commerce, Gallaudet reportedly signaled that he plans to open all marine national monuments, including those established by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to commercial fishing within 90 days. Gallaudet’s presentation attempts to justify this attack on America’s marine protected areas under the guise of “Reducing the Seafood Deficit.”
Allowing fishing trawlers to raid the coral reefs and shark breeding grounds in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument or in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument — 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod — won’t put a sardine-sized dent in the volume of cheap farmed shrimp and tilapia the US imports from Asia.
More important, however, allowing for the commercial exploitation of America’s marine national monuments reduces them to little more than names on the map — so-called paper parks — with no real protections for the marine life and natural wonders within their boundaries. Who would visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park if clear-cutting were allowed? Who would climb the Grand Tetons to look out on oil fields?
Gallaudet still has time to reconsider his plans and avoid a mistake that will damage America’s oceans and permanently tarnish his reputation.
In particular, Gallaudet — the former chief oceanographic scientist for the US Navy and a graduate of the distinguished Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego — should pause to review emerging scientific data about how marine protected areas tend to increase, not decrease, the value and productivity of nearby commercial fisheries.
In other words, marine national monuments not only safeguard endangered sharks, whales, and seabirds, but they also help rebuild and sustain commercial fishing stocks.
Both the landings and revenues of Hawaii’s commercial fishermen, for example, have climbed since President George W. Bush established the vast Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006. This isn’t actually surprising to scientists: Studies have found that the number of large fish species is 36 percent greater inside the boundaries of other marine protected areas, and that when marine protected areas are well managed and enforced, the increased reproductive capacity of larger and more plentiful fish results in a “spillover” of juvenile fish out to surrounding fishing grounds, adding to the total quantity of fish that can be caught and sold.
The science and the economics should make the fate of America’s marine national monuments an easy decision for Gallaudet. But the acting NOAA administrator is, no doubt, under intense pressure from the White House to advance policies that can be transformed into tweet-sized falsehoods on international trade.
Gallaudet’s conscience in concert with his scientific training must prevail. As the steward of one of America’s proud natural resource agencies, he must find the courage to do what our nation’s leaders of both parties have done without fail for more than a century: defend our parks, monuments, and protected areas against all forces, no matter their power or greed, for the benefit of all Americans.
John Podesta served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, counselor to President Barack Obama, and chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.