Ryan Zinke hopped off a boat after touring the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

 

The secretary of the Department of the Interior was headed to Florida last week to check out Irma damage near the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. He saw the Okefenokee on a map, covering more than 600 square miles in southeast Georgia, and decided to add it to the itinerary.

At the end of his visit, the Interior secretary made it clear he has no intentions of draining this swamp.

“This is a unique refuge,” he said. “I’m going to come back, because this is worth a couple more trips.”

When it comes to pieces of the Department of the Interior, national wildlife refuges often get overshadowed by their higher-profile cousins in the National Park System.

We have more than 500 refuges, starting with the one Teddy Roosevelt created near Vero Beach in 1903 (Pelican Island). With the second week in October designated as National Wildlife Refuge Week, it’s a fitting time to stop and appreciate these places.

It was good to see the Interior secretary doing that with the Okefenokee. When you visit a place, you’re more apt to care about protecting it. He and his wife seemed geniunely interested and excited about what they saw in the swamp.

I don’t doubt that Zinke, a Montana native, loves the outdoors. But some Americans are concerned about the future of the public lands he oversees, about plans to cut budgets and shrink pieces of the National Park System. We worry that some in Washington and the White House don’t have a connection to the America that Teddy Roosevelt loved and protected — the America that attracted more than 300 million visitors last year.

Five years after Pelican Island was created, Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to protect more than 800,000 acres in Arizona as Grand Canyon National Monument. It’s one of quite a few iconic national parks that started as a national monument.

Ralph Henry Cameron, an Arizona senator and businessman who fought against Grand Canyon National Monument, eventually sued. He didn’t want all that land locked away. He wanted more mining. He said the Antiquities Act was being misused, that it was designed to protect small ancient sites, not large landscapes. The Supreme Court ruled against Cameron in 1920.

Nearly 100 years later, this same argument has been renewed. In April, President Trump issued an executive order for Zinke to review 27 national monuments created by the last three administrations.

While Zinke has faced criticism for his use of charter flights for government business — during his Okefenokee stop, an Interior staffer made a point to note the secretary was driving on this trip — my concern isn’t so much where he has gone, or even how he got there. It’s where he hasn’t gone and the conclusions he has reached.

He only visited eight of the 27 national monuments under review. While he talked about listening to local voices, he often avoided some of the most local and American of voices — tribes supporting the monuments — and produced a report that dismissed public comments overwhelmingly opposing changes as a “well-orchestrated national campaign.”

His report recommends changes to 10 parks.

During the Okefenokee stop, he said that the Antiquities Act was designed to protect objects, not a large landscape. When asked how the current argument differs from the one Ralph Cameron made 100 years ago about Grand Canyon National Monument, Zinke said: “What was the object? It was the Grand Canyon.”

I’ve sometimes wonder where today’s leaders would have stood a century ago in the heated battle over preserving the Grand Canyon. Even more relevant is where they’ll stand on its preservation today and tomorrow.

The Grand Canyon isn’t one of the places under review. But it is under attack – threatened by hopes of nearby development, uranium mining and much more.

“Are We Losing the Grand Canyon?” asked a National Geographic story.

Kevin Fedarko wrote the piece. He has spent years rafting and hiking the Grand Canyon. His book, “The Emerald Mile,” is a great read about a record-setting river trip in the canyon. He’s in Florida this week, speaking at a First Amendment Foundation event Wednesday night in Orlando.

The title of his talk is the same as headline of the National Geographic story, ominously minus the question: “Losing the Grand Canyon.”

He says that what is happening in Arizona is relevant in Florida, Georgia and everywhere public lands still exist.

“If we can’t protect this one place, what else can we protect?” he said.

mark.woods@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4212