Springtime gets me thinking about the Natchez Trace Parkway and my goal to bicycle all 444 miles from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN. Today the Trace is preserved as a part of the National Park System. It once was a trail for native peoples of the southeast, and later transformed into a path by the European settlers. As a former park ranger, a former chaplain serving in National Parks, and as a current Lutheran pastor in Cordova, Tennessee, finding God in the cathedral of nature is a core component of my own faith. I consider protecting and restoring God’s creation to be an important expression of my faith. Our public lands, which are for our collective enjoyment, are also under our collective care.
That is why I am deeply troubled that in the past year, our nation has witnessed the most significant loss of conservation protections for public lands in our history. In December 2017, President Trump signed proclamations to drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument (by 85%) and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (by 50%). Trump’s action in December came from an Executive Order that calls for the Department of Interior to review of all national monuments designated after 1996. Unless people of faith and good conscience speak up to defend God’s creation, we will likely see the diminishment of more national monuments.
Our nation’s public lands are not only places to take Sabbath; they also conserve our collective memory by protecting natural, cultural, historical, and spiritual heritage. The loss of protections for Bears Ears National Monument particularly grieves me, as this was the first and largest area of public land benefitting from conservation protection at the request of Indigenous tribes. By taking this recent protection of sacred sites away from the tribes, our country has set back a much-needed pathway to healing.
On April 4, I gathered with faith leaders and concerned citizens to remember 50 years since the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, TN. This modern history also links us to 350 years of slavery and the 150 years of struggle for full inclusion by people of color in our country. Many national monuments established since 1996 reflect our country’s journey toward healing, and reconciliation. Yet, just as the Antiquities Act of 1906 has been used in the past to honor the heritage of communities of color, many leaders of the current Congress and Administration are taking actions to diminish and undermine this law’s power. We must be watchful and active to protect diverse cultural heritage sites in the Department of Interior’s care.
Since 1906, U.S. presidents from both political parties have designated national monuments under the Antiquities Act so that future generations can experience our nation’s open spaces, historic sites, and cultural treasures. Experience has demonstrated the wisdom of giving presidents this authority—nearly half of our country’s national parks were originally protected by the Antiquities Act, including the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon.
This Spring let us seek silence in a world of great noise. Let us respond to our yearning for relaxation, peace and contentment. Let us reconnect with our cultural and spiritual heritage. Let us also work to protect and preserve the public lands we so love and that have been entrusted to our care.