I. 2 New National Monuments Are Born—and 2 Expand

National monuments

Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah spans 1.3 million acres and includes 100,000 important Native American archaeological sites, like this petroglyph gracing the Comb Ridge. (Josh Ewing)

Few places in the United States combine archaeological treasures, sacred tribal land, and spectacular backcountry. But the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah and the Gold Butte area in Nevada do—and now they are also the among the nation’s newest national monuments. Designated by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, these culturally and geographically rich areas will be protected for future generations.

Bears Ears National Monument, named for a pair of mesas that resemble a bear rising up from the horizon, showcases a jaw-dropping contrast of red-rock buttes and arches, sandstone canyons, natural bridges, and pinyon-juniper forests. Bears Ears’ rugged 1.3 million acres are surrounded by notable and iconic places: Canyonlands National Park lies just north of the monument, while Glen Canyon National Recreation Area abuts the western border. The Navajo Nation resides on the monument’s southern side, and the White Mesa Ute Reservation frames the eastern boundary.

Bears Ears’ 100,000 archaeological sites, which include cliff dwellings and rock art, are so important—sacred to Native Americans—that 26 tribes joined in asking the president to protect the area. A majority of Utah residents also supported making the area a monument, believing that it would boost the state’s tourism industry and benefit wildlife and the environment, as designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument did in 1996.

Some 450 miles away in the Mojave Desert northeast of Las Vegas lies Gold Butte, known as Nevada’s piece of the Grand Canyon, a land that has been molded over time by humans as well as nature. In the north, stunning tree-covered mountains rise 8,000 feet against the Virgin River and shadow a crimson-hued, harsh land. In the south, narrow, meandering canyons and ridges are dotted with otherworldly geologic formations of red sandstone. Here, Native Americans left part of their history: petroglyphs and shelters that date back more than 12,000 years. The new monument is also home to iconic desert species such as bighorn sheep, mountain lions, desert tortoises, and Gila monsters, while mule deer, Gambel’s quails, and chukar partridges attract hunters. Gold Butte’s natural wonders are popular with photographers as well as outdoor enthusiasts who hike, camp, bird-watch, and explore slot canyons that slice through layers of sandstone and limestone. A coalition of businesses, community officials, casino executives, and tribal leaders joined in supporting protection of Gold Butte.

The Pew Charitable Trusts campaigned for the monument designations, which were made by the president through the Antiquities Act. They prohibit new development while continuing to allow current nonharmful uses of the land, such as grazing, all-terrain vehicle recreation, fishing, hunting, and traditional tribal activities.

In January, President Obama expanded two existing national monuments: the California Coastal and Cascade-Siskiyou landscapes.

Southwestern Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, located at the intersection of three ecoregions along the California border, is the only national monument explicitly designated to protect an area for its diversity of unique species as well as its natural communities, some of which occur nowhere else on the planet. In 2011, an independent interdisciplinary group of scientists recommended that the monument’s boundaries be expanded to protect the area’s old-growth forests, a land bridge that enables the flow of plants and animals between distinct ecoregions, and clean, cold rivers that support endemic species such as the Jenny Creek redband trout. The expansion adds nearly 50,000 acres to the monument.

The extension of the California Coastal National Monument adds 6,600 acres of land to some 20,000 small islands, exposed reefs, geologic formations, and 1,665 acres along the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline. Safeguarding this area helps to ensure that native wildlife—harbor seals, sea lions, bottlenose and Pacific white-sided dolphins, gray and humpback whales, elephant seals, the California red-legged frog, salmon, and steelhead trout—will live in a healthier marine environment. The addition will also create more recreational options, such as hiking trails, beaches, and areas for watching elephant seals and whales—all less than 300 miles from San Francisco.

“The Antiquities Act has created a living, breathing museum that enables us to share our nation’s history through firsthand experience,” says Mike Matz, who leads Pew’s work to protect public lands. “More than 100 years after the act’s inception, we appreciate that presidents continue to recognize the importance of these landscapes and that they should be protected for generations.”

II. New FDA Guidelines Limit Antibiotics in Food Animals

Antibiotic use in food animals

Pigs are among the animals affected by changes to the use of antibiotics on the farm. (Monty Rakusen/Getty Images)

This year marks a milestone in the fight against antibiotic resistance, with important new policies limiting how the drugs can be used in food-producing animals.

Antibiotics can be lifesaving when used to treat infection. But bacteria exposed to antibiotics are also likely to develop resistance so that the drugs are no longer effective. That’s why it is important that they are used only when necessary in people and animals.

As of Jan. 1, at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, animal drug companies have removed any growth promotion indications from the drugs’ labels, which means it is no longer legal to administer these antibiotics to healthy animals merely to get them to grow faster. The guidance also mandates that a licensed veterinarian oversee most antibiotics and prevents the drugs from being sold over the counter.

These changes will help to strengthen the stewardship of antibiotics used on farms—something Pew has long championed. The rules mark a growing consensus that these drugs should be used only when they are necessary and appropriate for protecting the health of animals.

 “This is an important step in the right direction,” says Karin Hoelzer, a veterinarian who works on Pew’s antibiotic resistance project. “Antibiotics can no longer be used to promote growth—but more work needs to be done to ensure that these lifesaving drugs are used responsibly.”

—Demetra Aposporos

III. Americans Divided Over Health Benefits of Organic, Genetically Modified Foods

Organic and genetically modified foods

Are organically grown avocados better for us? More than half of Americans say yes. (Getty Images)

In the past generation, Americans have been inundated with new science around food: the introduction of genetically modified crops, the rise of the organic food industry, increased concerns about obesity, and a growing awareness of allergies and other food-related health concerns.

The past 20 years also have seen a pronounced shift in Americans’ eating habits, with far-reaching implications for how food is created, prepared, and consumed. Moreover, the way Americans eat today is a source of potential social, economic, and political friction as people follow personal preferences reflecting their beliefs about how foods connect with their health, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center released in December.

The new food divides are encapsulated by how people assess the health effects of two kinds of food: organic and genetically modified (GM).

Organic and genetically modified foods

The survey finds that 55 percent of Americans believe organically grown produce is healthier than conventionally grown varieties, while 41 percent say there is no difference, and 3 percent consider conventionally grown produce to be better. Four in 10 Americans say that most (6 percent) or some (34 percent) of the foods they eat are organic. Three-quarters of these Americans are convinced that organic foods are healthier than those conventionally grown.

At the same time, a sizable minority of Americans—39 percent—considers genetically modified foods to be worse for a person’s health. This compares with 48 percent of adults who say GM foods are neither better nor worse than non-GM foods, and 10 percent who say GM foods promote better health.

—Demetra Aposporos

IV. Philadelphia's Tax Gap With Suburbs at 15-Year Low

Philadelphia's tax gap with suburbs

Shafts of light warm strollers in Elferth's Alley in Philadelphia, where middle-income families owning homes enjoyed their lowest tax burden in years. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomgberg/Getty Images)

The tax disadvantage of living in Philadelphia instead of its suburbs has dropped to its lowest point since 2000, thanks in part to recent property and income tax changes.

In the November issue brief “The Shrinking Tax Gap Between Philadelphia and Its Suburbs,” which focused on taxes that a hypothetical family would pay in the city versus the suburbs, Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative found that on average, a middle-income family owning a house in Philadelphia spent 12.4 percent of its income on local property tax, state and local sales tax, and state and local income tax in 2015. A similar family in the surrounding Pennsylvania or New Jersey suburbs paid on average 11.8 percent, or just 0.6 percentage points less. This urban-suburban tax gap dropped from a difference of 3.7 percentage points 15 years earlier.

Philadelphia’s homestead relief program helps to explain this shift. The program, enacted in 2013, reduced the taxable portion of property assessments for homeowners by up to $30,000. Without this exemption, the city’s tax burden—and tax disadvantage—would have grown, according to Pew’s analysis.

When people are deciding where to live within a region, the tax rate can often help tilt the decision. Economists view the tax gap as a useful measure of competitiveness and a potential factor in helping people choose where to live and in determining funding for public services. It can also help local officials weigh their tax decisions against those of surrounding areas.

Although Philadelphia still had heftier tax bills than most of its suburbs, ranking 97th out of the 355 southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey municipalities studied, the city’s tax burden shrank the most when compared with those of suburbs with relatively low median household incomes. Among the region’s 100 poorest communities, Philadelphia’s tax burden declined from third-heaviest in 2000 to 59th-heaviest in 2015.

In addition to the homestead exemption, a number of other factors helped bridge the urban-suburban tax gap—among them, incremental decreases in Philadelphia’s city wage tax and a more rapid increase in property taxes in the suburbs.

The biggest change involved suburban commuters. In 2000, owning a home in the suburbs but working in the city saved an average family around $300, but in 2015 that same household lost $1,210.

“For Philadelphians of moderate income, who presumably have moderately priced homes, this tax break was a big deal,” said Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, referring to the homestead exemption. “It made a significant difference, especially vis-a-vis some of the lower-income suburbs.”

—Erika Pontarelli Compart