Let the stories that our national monuments tell unite Americans

Here in Indiana, we are blessed with a handful of national parks and numerous state parks that showcase the historical and natural beauty of our state. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore showcases rare species of birds and a stunning view of Lake Michigan and Lincoln’s Boyhood Home helped build the moral and character traits of our 16th U.S. president.

From scenic areas that honor God’s creation to cultural sites that honor our stories as Americans, national parks and monuments are cornerstones to our American heritage.

As we emerge into a new political season, I am deeply saddened by the increasing rhetoric coming out of Washington – from the administration to Congress – that does not place a priority on protecting public lands. What appears to be happening is a fool’s game, since caring for God’s creation through stewardship of our public lands is the very act that sustains the air, water and land that in turn sustains us.

I was equally alarmed to hear that President Trump issued an executive order recently that would review national monuments and determine whether they should be dismantled or decreased in size. The dismantling or modification of any national monument by a president is unprecedented and ill-conceived.

National monuments are designated to protect existing federal land so every American can enjoy these open spaces. We know immersing ourselves in God’s creation has incredible restorative powers. Time spent outdoors brings positive impacts to our physical, emotional and spiritual health. This experience can be an important element of our relationship with God and lead to caring for the Earth as a direct act of faith.

In recognition that land needed to be set aside for ecological integrity, enjoyment and cultural reflection, the Antiquities Act was passed giving presidents authority to preserve valuable pieces of creation. In addition to historic, scientific or ecological use, these monuments also serve as an opportunity to honor our country’s diverse national mosaic. National monuments like Bears Ears, the Statue of Liberty, and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad celebrate important chapters of our shared American history.

As a faith leader who has made Indiana home, I know from my experiences in the church that to successfully unite the fabric of our nation we each need to know the stories of our neighbors as well as our own stories. National monuments are great avenues for this storytelling – allowing us to experience the combined cultural and ecological heritage that is America. Stories like Pullman, the birthplace of black unions; Bears Ears, a Native American spiritual and cultural site; and Canyons of the Ancients, rich with archaeological treasures, are important history books for us all to read and become richer by the experience.

Since 1906, American presidents from both parties have wisely proclaimed 150 monuments using the Antiquities Act, so future generations can experience the stories told by our nation’s open spaces, historic sites and cultural treasures. History has demonstrated the wisdom of giving presidents this authority – nearly half of America’s national parks were originally protected by the Antiquities Act, including the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon.

I urge the president not to focus on dismantling national monuments but instead ensure that they are maintained in such a way that we can enjoy the beauty and cultural significance of these unique places. I also urge Sens. Donnelly and Young to protect the Antiquities Act and any national monument from attack. In preserving natural treasures and our collective stories, we can more fully unite as a nation. In a time when America seems more divided than ever, what could be more important? <br>

<i> Ron Degges is president of Disciples Home Missions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, located in Indianapolis. Key elements of DHM’s Ministry are empowering social and environmental justice. </i>