No sooner had the Bears Ears National Monument been proclaimed than local Utah politicians launched a concerted effort to undo it. Kirsten Allen and her gang at Torrey House Press have gone to great lengths to help support the making of the Monument and may indeed have played a role in its creation by the President Obama and the Department of the Interior. They created and published Red Rock Testimony and took hundreds of copies to Washington D.C. They simultaneously came out with Edge of Morning, a book of all Native voices in support of the Bears Ears. These are very nice people, why would they promote an outcome that local people don’t want?
The answer becomes clear when we take a look at who we are talking about locally and then take a peek behind the curtains of what the motivations are of the Utah politicians and their supporters.
First, it is far from true that most people in the four-corners and Bears Ears region do not want the Monument. What the white Republican politicians mean is that white Republicans in the area do not want the Monument. I want to take a look at why they don’t want it and take apart the idea that most people in the area don’t want the Monument.
Diné Bikéyah (pronounced di-NAY bi-KAY-uh) means “people’s sacred lands” in the Navajo language. Half the population of San Juan County is Navajo. The Diné Bikéyah is a nonprofit organized to “Preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of ancestral Native American lands to benefit and bring healing to people and the Earth.” Along with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition the Monument has the support of six out of seven of the Navajo chapters in San Juan County and a coalition of 30 additional Tribes. These tribes are represented by the elected officials of their sovereign nations. Utah politicians ignore, disavow, and refuse to meet with these groups and officials. Instead they find a hand picked tiny minority of Native Americans who are not in support of Bears Ears Monument status to prove Native Americans are opposed. It is like the climate change argument and the grossly false equivalence of saying the science is uncertain because two or three out of every hundred scientists–if that is what those who disagree really are–disagree with the overwhelming evidence.
Here is an ugly, shameful example of where “local management” goes off the rails. Around 30 years before I was born the West was suffering from being hugely overgrazed. It still is, but I will blog about that later. Local white ranchers, with the tacit support of the U.S. Government, sought to alleviate some of the overgrazing problem by slaughtering the livestock of the Navajos. They killed these animals and left them on the range to rot in order to wipe out a people and their competition. It had the twin results of impoverishing the Navajo Nation, turning the people into dependents, and wiping out the competition for the white ranchers. These ranchers’ descendants remain in “local” control of the county today. “Local” control starts to sound less attractive as we pull back the curtains. But there is more.
The disproportionate clout of rural county commissioners
To listen to our elected Utah officials at both the state and federal level one would think that Utah’s economy is primarily made up of agriculture, natural resources and mining. One would be wrong about that, as the chart below shows (from the 2017 Utah Economic Report to the Governor).
Those industry segments combined make up less that three percent of Utah’s economy. Why then all the emphasis on extraction when it plays such a small part of jobs and wealth creation? I see two main reasons and an ugly third.
The first is the political clout of rural county commissioners. Most of the population and economy of Utah lies along the urban corridor of the Wasatch Front, Cedar City and St. George areas. Most of the economic base in Utah is urban, most of the land is rural. State representatives are in numbers proportional to population–thus there are more urban representatives than rural reps– while counties are generally distributed by proportionate land size and so there are many more rural county commissioners than there are urban county commissioners. And there is something about a rural cowboy hat that really gets the John Wayne juices going in our politcal reps such as U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch likes to say he wants local input and that he gets it from county commissioners. Let’s take a look at these commissioner-cowboys.
Several years ago in rural Wayne County, Utah, the county was reviewing its bi-annual country resource management plan. Since most of Capitol Reef National Park is in Wayne County the park superintendent attended the review. The superintendent leafed through the 30 some odd pages and noticed there was no mention of the Park anywhere in the plan so he raised his hand and pointed it out. The commissioners just stared at him. Finally, one frowned and spoke up. “Son,” he said, “you can’t mine in the park, you can’t log in the park, you cannot graze in the park, hell, you can’t even get the water out of there. It ain’t a resource!”
The photo above is from the Utah Office of Tourism and Economic Development. The recreating rider is looking down on the the Torrey-Teasdale Fremont River Valley that is in Wayne County and is the gateway to Capital Reef National Park. Today Wayne County commissioners unanimously want to put an industrial gravel pit right in the middle of this scene. Never mind the area is zoned residential and light agriculture, the commissioners are as offended that the residents of Torrey-Teasdale are vigorously opposed to a gravel pit as we are offended they insist on putting one here. They say we are a threat to their “custom and culture” and to their “way of life.” And their way of life, traditionally, has been extraction. It does not matter that the land is worth more in its natural state today or that it is worth more to the county tax base, by far, as a residential area. We so-called “move-ins” in Wayne County make up about ten percent of the population but pay about 50 percent of the property tax. More of us would be an economic boon to the county. But that doesn’t matter, the facts are denied and the commissioners are closed minded, clench-fisted determined that extraction comes first and last.
The second reason is, of course, money. What I just spoke of is not a story where money alone rules. But there is a lot of extraction based money rolling around in Utah politics. It primarily comes from the likes of the Koch brothers and the Farm Bureau. Both of which have been creating strategy and funding for conservative rural politics for many years, in an effective and impressive way, to the great detriment of the land and its public owners. The top funders of the Utah congressional representatives are extraction industry monies. Support for local county reps is the same. It is holding Utah back and often hurting the very folks who embrace it.
A third reason for “local” opposition to the Bears Ears is blatant racism, an example of which I cited earlier. The white county commissioners are fond of saying their people got to this land first. They also complain that Indian grave robbing and artifact gathering used to be legal (it wasn’t) and object to being arrested for it. You see my point. Another subject for another blog.
When it comes to public lands, we are all local
Economic studies show that the rural counties around national parks are doing about 30 percent better in terms of economic growth, jobs and income than counties that are isolated. Rural county commissioners often declare just the opposite and simply deny the benefit. But such is not in their own interest. The Bears Ears National Monument will be good for San Juan County. Most of the claims against it are, um, “contra-factual.” Existing grazing and mining leases will be honored. Access remains the same and open. It will just be limited to what there is now and, hopefully, more protection provided for the runs and artifacts that have not yet been looted. Often the local politicians’ interest are not in parallel with the majority of their constituents. The Koch brothers don’t like the precedent of restricting extraction industry from public lands in any way and they buy their way to local political power. We Americans all own the public lands. It makes no more sense to allow “local” input into the land management than it does to allow the fellow who lives next door to the bank to have some sort of privileged access to bank funds that are not his. Our banks, like our lands, would end up plundered.
The Antiquities Act was written in 1906 to protect antiquities. There are still more antiquities on the Bears Ears Monument than anywhere. Americans should and do #SupportBearsEars. It is well past time.