NEW YORK — Speaking before 400 conservationists at Conservation International’s annual New York gala, former U.S. President Bill Clinton defended his 1996 decision to protect Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as the right decision for the economy and the environment.

Describing himself as “somewhere in between mystified and heartbroken,” Clinton criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent move to cut protections for the Utah park by half.

Clinton recalled discussions with Utahns in years following the designation. “They started saying, ‘You were right. We were wrong. We have more jobs, more economic activity. We’re preserving our heritage. We’re overrun with eco-tourists, and we don’t have those coal trucks going back and forth over those precious beds 24 hours a day,’” Clinton said.

Clinton pointed to the central role of Native American tribes in defending the monument. “I mean, this is supposed to be a time in which we honor the native-born over immigrants,” he said. “The only true native-born Americans are the tribal people who live in the area protected, who all oppose this.”

Presenting Clinton with Conservation International’s Global Visionary Award, the organization’s CEO, Dr. M. Sanjayan, described Clinton’s record as “an enduring legacy for international conservation.”

Watch the full video of Clinton’s speech here.

Pointing to his protection of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, 67 million acres of tropical forests worldwide and 4 million acres of new parks in the United States, Sanjayan said that the former president “really propelled the notion of protecting land and water to new heights.”

Clinton struck an optimistic tone before the gala crowd of philanthropists, business leaders and former government officials assembled at New York’s American Natural History Museum as he discussed the broader issues of conservation and environmental protection.

“Every survey shows that a majority of the people — indeed a substantial one — agrees with most of what you’re here to support,” Clinton said. “So, my message tonight is — in spite of all this stuff that makes you worried — you’re winning.”

Clinton described the past 30 years as proof that sustainable development is possible, with living standards rising globally and a two-fold increase in protected lands worldwide. “It’s not like we don’t know how to do this,” he said.

Turning to climate change, Clinton cited the leadership of states, cities and businesses, predicting that the United States will meet its Paris Agreement goals, even without support from the national government. With examples from around the world, the former president made the case that global progress is on track.

“No matter how discouraging the headlines are, we know that underneath what we need to do is achievable and affordable,” he said.

In closing his remarks, Clinton marveled at the exhibits around him, including a life-size model of a 94-foot blue whale suspended in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life.

“I don’t want future generations to have to learn about this only in a museum,” he said. “I want to leave them the real thing.”

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer for Conservation International.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.