Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A monumental disaster - my view

Interrupting the self-indulgent blawg posts about global gallivanting with a PSA prompted by yesterday's depressing events in Utah....

“Well, it happened.”  I used these words about a year ago as a preface to:  “President Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument!”  in an article for the Utah Adventure Journal.  Now I’m dismayed to use those words as a preface to:  “President Trump eviscerated Bears Ears National Monument AND dramatically reduced the Grand Staircase National Monument.” 

Yesterday Trump came to Utah to sign the proclamation that was effectively created by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke after his May visit to Utah.  Not surprisingly, while Trump was in the capitol a few hundred people protested nearby, and I went there hoping to find some solace and solidarity with my fellow Utahns who couldn’t abide by this action, but it was actually pretty depressing for me.  As smart, passionate people created clever signs and took time out of their work day stand ignored on a cold day sequestered far from the building, the People With Power were inside slapping each other on their backs celebrating yet again another victory of capitalism uber alles.  Later I saw this photo:
Sufferin' Sycophants! 
Then this morning I heard an interview with a southern Utah county commissioner on (national) NPR and read an SL Trib op-ed by another rancher who’s on the “Public Lands Council” that were so full of inaccuracies…..well, I cracked.  And I got a few inquiries from both Utahns and out-of-staters as to what the heck is goin’ on, so I thought I’d do a quick blawg post with my thoughts. 

21 years ago Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon (wrong state, but…) basically as a 1996 re-election campaign strategy to win over environmentalists who knew that even though he was generally progressive he wasn’t “green”.  He invoked the Antiquities Act without involving anyone else, particularly Orrin Hatch, who probably has ground through many sets of dentures over that action ever since.  Orrin is a particularly righteous guy and an opportunistic politician (his recent outburst being the most recent example) and he’s been very consistent on this point; he has absolutely hated Clinton for that action and hated the GSENM….because of Clinton.  When Trump became the president-elect Orrin capitalized on both the congressional republicans’ horror at Obama’s creation of the Bears Ears Monument and Trump’s desire to dismantle all things Obama by planting the seeds of reversal with Trump.  

As always, favors amongst the powerful cut both ways:  NPR’s main story about yesterday’s antics wasn’t about the proclamation, but the fact that Trump really needs Orrin to maintain his tottery presence in the Senate, because his likely successor is Mitt Romney, who has and would pose a threat to Trump. 

In the Bears Ears article I wrote for the Utah Adventure Journal I wrote a fair bit about the details of grazing (always was allowed in the monuments) and mining (really?  We need new sources of coal and natural gas, even though the prices for both of those is super low?), and in an earlier article about the GSENM I compared those activities to tourism.  Since then Secretary Zinke went and visited these areas, and I was actually somewhat optimistic; how could someone visit places like Boulder, Escalante, and Kanab and not recognize that those communities are thriving because of the monuments, not despite them?  Home values are way up (if you can find one), new businesses (including hard-to-miss hotels) are blossoming, and the towns are vibrant.  However, Zinke’s visit was so tightly scripted that his handlers didn’t let him actually engage in those businesses; in fact, he did not even meet with the Chamber of Commerce for Boulder/Escalante (who actually have taken out ads in the SL Tribune decrying yesterday’s action), and usually Chambers of Commerce are all about conservative fiscal values.

Which leads to two more things I’ve learned since writing those articles.  The first is that Utah is somewhat unusual in that the sphere of power ironically resides in the rural areas; many of the state’s most powerful politicians are from the rural areas (one was rumored to being considered for the national director for the BLM), and Salt Lake City proper is more liberal and its residents are virtually disenfranchised.  And those state leaders who aren’t from the southern desert are heavily influenced by the traditional older, white, male, ranching folks that populate southern Utah. Which leads to the second important point:  the fact that most of these folks are Mormons, and many (not all, but more traditional) Mormons have a fundamental distrust of the federal government that literally goes back 150 years (for valid reasons), and have a super strong sense of not only self-reliance but also community support.  Therefore, if it’s federal government owned or managed, it’s overreach, and if the ranchers down south think it’s overreach  - even if they are able to graze as many cattle as they want on public land for less than $25/year apiece – their brethren up north will support them, regardless of the on-the-ground veracity of their claims (the county commissioner on NPR today was waxing on about how much conservation   -to undo the damage that 100 years of their grazing has caused? - they’d be doing in GSENM….if they could!). 

So it there is the connection:  the good ol’ boy farmers who graze their cows on subsidized prices complain to their buddies who go up the chain to the state leadership who talk to the Senators and representatives who in turn influences the president who wants to keep those folks supporting him and….it’s proclamation time.  Despite the fact that is the public not necessarily in support of that:  it’s 50-50 in Utah, and the summer’s national comment period was overwhelming in its support to maintain the monuments, facts that Utah’s leadership conveniently ignores and denies. 

A huge part of the Bears Ears aspect was of course the Native American factor, and that’s confounding to me:  despite a continuous chorus of voices saying that they were absolutely against this action, Utah’s leadership  - and Orrin  -keep saying that the tribes are also loathe to the concept of government overreach.  That’s a convenient narrative, considering that they are Native Americans and all, but in this case they are very vocal about their desire for federal protection.  That said, why is there a Native woman in the photo above? 

If you are feeling as hopeless as I am, a great way to feel slightly less so is to make a big part of your annual fall/holiday giving (you are doing that, right?) is to the groups that will be throwing huge resources at suing the Fed over this unprecedented action.  According to my sources, The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Friends of Cedar Mesa, Natural Resources Defense Council, Utah Dineh Bikeya, Earthjustice, and the Native Americans Rights Fund are all good. 

And we will be sending money to Alabaman Roy Moore’s opponent Doug Jones to see if we can help tip the balance in the Senate, not to mention our own local hero Ben McAdams in his quest to unseat Mia Love for Utah’s fourth district.  Could I find myself eventually sending money to Mitt Romney?!? 


  1. Thanks Tom. It makes more sense especially when you illustrate the balance of liberals vs rural conservatives. Surely more rational minds will eventually prevail. I will look into helping those resources you cite. This was all appalling to me.

  2. Tom, I'm having a hard time seeing how the BE downsizing is so harmful. It has reverted back to whatever status the land was before the monument. Zinke is a off-putting, as are many of the other local politicians like Herb and Orrin.

    My experience is that many of these amazing places fly under the radar until great status is given to them (Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, etc.) Then they become an utter junk show. Anyway. I'm optimistic that the lands will largely remain the same even if they don't have the same status they did last year.

    Let's go skiing!

  3. Hopefully, that comment doesn't come across as too argumentative, I don't like being caught up in the rhetoric from the politicians or the hippies at Patagonia. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.