2017 was a rough year for our beautiful, fragile, public lands in Utah. I look at the image above and all I can see is Utah’s Republican politicians celebrating a gang rape led by the pussy grabber in chief. I am with the Salt Lake Tribune that the image is of Utah at its ugly worst as these quislings celebrate kicking American Indians in the teeth and sucker punching the rest of America. All in the name of . . . what exactly?
Why these powerful politicians revoked Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante Monuments is not obvious. Everything they said to justify their grabbing was an egregious lie. The land wasn’t grabbed by the federal government, it was already public and held in trust for the American people. If anything the monument proclamations went too far to explicitly allow for hunting, fishing, and the continuance of existing grazing privileges while honoring existing leases for oil, gas, and coal. Providing permanent protections does not “lock up the land,” it opens it up. Bears Ears did not “prevent Native Americans from having their rightful voice over the sacred land where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions.” It did just the opposite and did so at the Tribes’ request. Trump was gas-lighting the whole country as he claimed, “Our precious national treasures must be protected. And they, from now on, will be protected.” Nasty, ugly stuff that begs the question of a rational reason to revoke our beloved national monuments.
In an excellent op-ed for the L.A. Times, Stephen Trimble called the out sized power exercised by rural county commissioners “shocking.” 2.8 million Americans wrote comments to the Department of the Interior about Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, 98 percent of whom were in favor of retaining the monuments as they were. San Juan County in Utah has fewer than 16,000 residents. Utah’s U.S. Senators Hatch and Lee say they like to defer to “locals” as represented by the commissioners, and that, in part, explains why so few can manage to undermine the wishes of so many.
In Escalante, Utah, for instance, 51 of the 52 members of the local Chamber of Commerce are for maintaining the monuments as they were. Why then are the commissioners anti-business? Every one of them is Republican and Mormon. Most of them are male. (Rebecca Benally, a Mormon Navajo woman is the exception and she has her own apparent, possibly nefarious, conflict of interest motivation to betray the Tribes.) Mormon Republican leadership tends toward fundamentalism. Bruce Adams, pictured above with his cowboy hat, declared in the July 2016 public meeting in Bluff held by then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell that “my people were the original settlers of the area.” A collective gasp filled the room as Native Americans took in his entitled, racist arrogance. There is a 19th century sense of manifest destiny that has not yet been stamped out. The convicted criminal, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, declared in the same meeting that Indians “lost the war” and the land now belongs to the [white] locals.
Utah Republicans have long been fighting to grab federal public land in Utah and neighboring states (see the Bundy debacle in Nevada). It is strange since our public lands to most of us Utahns are the best thing about the state. There is a painful but critical perspective that is necessary to understand what motivates men like Hatch, Lee, Bishop, Stewart, Adams, Lyman and Bundy. In The Revelator journalist John Dougherty writes that
. . . if Trump had also chosen to sit down with experts such as Thomas Murphy and Angelo Baca, two scholars of American Indian descent who were raised Mormon, he surely would have heard a different perspective on Mormon doctrine from the one offered by church leaders. Trump would have heard how latent racism, a history of grave robbery beginning with LDS founder Joseph Smith, disrespect of tribal sovereignty and a belief in divine right to the land are at the heart Utah’s relentless drive to seize control of federal public lands, particularly Bears Ears.
Murphy and Baca co-authored a 2016 academic paper, “Rejecting Racism in Any Form: Latter-day Saint Rhetoric, Religion and Repatriation,” on the history of Mormon theology and its impact on indigenous people.
The paper provides an indigenous interpretation of Mormon history and details how religious scripture has been used to marginalize American Indians, justify the looting of artifacts, and reject tribal sovereignty and rights to petition the federal government to create national monuments such as Bears Ears.
“The presumption of the right of the settler colonists (to the land) is not unique to Mormons,” Murphy tells The Revelator. But, he says, what’s unique to Mormon settler colonists is that they use scripture to justify their actions.
“When you add a divine sanction to it you get an element of righteous zeal that I think is playing out” in the intense opposition to Bears Ears National Monument from Utah’s elected leaders, nearly all of whom are Mormons, he says. “There’s not just a righteous zeal, but there’s a righteous fury.”
I expect the majority of rank and file Mormons don’t share the zeal to repeal and plunder our protected common lands. But the current Republican political leaders do. We need to elect different people.
The other, perhaps more commonly attributed motive for a Republican land grab is the money that comes from the extraction industry and organizations like that of the Koch brothers. That, too, is perverse. Today in Utah the extraction industries of agriculture, natural resources and mining (including oil and gas) combined make up less that three percent of Utah’s economy. Only corruption and fundamentalism, certainly not the economic good of the state, can account for the focus on non-sustainable extraction by Utah’s elected Republicans.
The main argument by the Republican officials when it comes to their inexplicable land grab policies is that they are deferring to rural locals. By that argument the fine local folks at Ft. Knox should have priority access to the nation’s gold reserves. It may be tempting to sympathize with the “local” cowboy as they “watch their youth move away, their schools and post offices close, the availability of everything from jobs to groceries to medical care dry up and blow away.” But it is a fraud to say that if they only had unfettered access to log down the forests, graze off the grass, drill up the oil, mine out the uranium and hunt down all the wildlife predators that all would be righteous. If left to their own devices ugly “locals” would continue to cause permanent harm to the state’s most precious sacred places, for only a selfish short term gain, if any, most of which goes to the Kochs of the world.
And it is a fraud that neglects the Native American majority that is in San Juan County whose sovereign, elected leaders worked together for years to protect their homeland and who petitioned the President of the U.S., nations to nation, for the Bears Ears National Monument. We came close to finally doing something right for our Native American brothers and sisters. Now Republicans and ugly “locals” revel at breaking yet another U.S. promise.
We will see Trump and the public land grabbers in court. I expect we will get the monuments back. The law and monument precedents are well established.
At Torrey House Press we talk about the uphill climb of Stegners’ challenge to create a culture to match the scenery. Culture is changed through conversation and literature is the cutting edge. With the ugly so-called “locals” of Utah currently, we have our work cut out for us. We are not the only ones working. Not by a long shot. Be prepared for the building backlash against this and other lamentable grabs by the current Republican majority.