Originally Published in The Southern Utah Independent 07/09/17
While sitting at a campfire at a friend’s home this last spring, the subject of public lands came up — in particular, the discussion of what the current administration has planned for them. One particularly verbose and self-proclaimed member of the elite “pioneer stock” of Utah seemed a little discontented with the idea that there was even a discussion to be had on the matter.
“We need to take our damn land back.” He said.
This is a more-than-common sentiment on the topic among conservatives and pseudo-scholar constitution lovers. It is espoused as an obvious point of fact and generally accepted to be so with little debate. This is problematic for reasons we’ll discuss, but at the outset here, it is something that very much needs to be understood before taking to the task of preventing states from gaining control of federal lands.
Generalizations duly noted here, it is safe to say that many of the proponents for control of state lands lean towards a fundamentalist conservative worldview. With that in mind, perhaps an analogy of sorts could be drawn from someone they regard highly and authoritative on matters of conscience in an effort to begin a dialogue by first finding some common ground.
C. S. Lewis is perhaps one of the more notable and beloved theologians and advocates of the absoluteness of deity in the eyes of western Christian civilization. He wrote, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
By “philosophy,” he presumably meant “theology,” among perhaps other things. But the point is that it was not lost on him that it is imperative to bring to an argument upon matters of consequence, as much of the truth in facts as can be mustered at the time, else the argument itself is pointless. And he presumed in this statement that this precept was a universally transcendent one.
When it comes to the debate over public lands at present, and drawing from the example the boisterous Utah native presents, it should be said that an accurate understanding of history and laws regarding public lands must exist, if for no other reason than because inaccurate and ignorant ones must be answered.
And in this time and place in history, it is as important as ever, because, my friends, that inaccurate and ignorant paradigm may well prevail in a manner not thought possible until now.
Because until now, public lands, national monuments and parks, state trust lands, and environmental regulations and agencies have prevailed largely under the attacks of such ignorance because no matter what salvos of emotional appeal were lobbed at them, the courts were what they ran up against.
Legislators with ties to the extraction industry would rally causes of federal land being ceded to state control with the ardent support of their constituencies but would invariably only gain the loyalty of their supporters for their attempts. It was the courts that would stop them. Espousing without merit that the states are really the constitutional, legal, rightful owners of the U.S. public lands and portraying the ownership of land by the federal government as illegal and unconstitutional, these legislators would spend vast amounts of tax dollars mendaciously pursuing the agenda. And in spite of the failed outcome, which often their own offices of research and legislative councils would advise them of, they would consider it a successful loss. They may not have accomplished the goal, but they satisfied their ill-informed base that they had fought the good fight, often capitalizing on the fact that this very base did not know enough to know that they were being used for a corporate agenda.
It sounds appealing to the average supporter of this agenda that the federal government is out of control and has no right to the land it has taken. To these supporters, the land must be taken back at all costs.
This just simply does not align with facts.
The United States government owns 650 million acres of land. That is about 30 percent of the land area of the country. At one point early in its history, it owned all of the lands west of the original 13 states. Federal land ownership started when the original states ceded their “Western Land claims” in the decade beginning in 1781. Other than these Western lands claims, none of the original public domain was ever owned by states.
These lands cannot be “given back” to the states, because the states never had them in the first place.
U.S. acquisition of federal lands occurred mostly from 1803 to 1867, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and ending with the purchase of Alaska.
This is covered in the U.S. Constitution by the Property Clause (Article IV, section 3, clause 2), which reads, “The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”
The Antiquities Act of 1906 followed the 1905 and earlier designations of national forests, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) is likely the most concrete and impenetrable legislation protecting federal lands. FLPMA repealed all land-disposal claims and made it national policy that from then on the general intent was to keep all the public lands. This is where the law regarding public lands sits today.
Likely in response to FLPMA and perhaps an increasing interest by the general public on a national level to regulate grazing and forestry practices on public lands, the Sagebrush Rebellion of 1976 began. Largely lead by ranchers who in some cases rightly felt their lifestyles and livelihoods were being infringed upon, the rebellion was put down in 1984 by the courts.
But its spirit lives on and can be witnessed in recent upsurges such as the standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada by rancher Cliven Bundy, the illegal ATV ride through Recapture Canyon in southeast Utah spearheaded by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and inflamed by Bundy’s son Ryan, and the illegal takeover of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon by Ryan and Ammon Bundy and accomplices.
In spite of the radical nature of the Bundys’ misaligned defiance, it is understandable on some levels and to varying degrees represents the unrest and dissatisfaction the west has been accumulating with the federal government. American heritage in the west is all but synonymous with the western rancher/cowboy culture as it embodies the rugged individualism of the American ethos.
And it is that ethos and the ill-informed infatuation with it that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have aligned with to accomplish corporate interests disguised as the interests of everyday Americans with a stake in public lands.
ALEC is a political vehicle of the Koch Brothers for transforming their ideology and policy preferences into law. Extractive industries, such as mining industries and fossil fuels, as well as real estate developers desire federal lands for development without the environmental regulations, fees, and royalties required by federal land management agencies.
And with the recent election of Donald Trump and a powerful Republican majority, the groundwork is now in place for a real and viable threat to public lands once so ardently protected by legislation enforced by the courts.
Utah Republican Mike Noel presents an example of the not so rhetorical threat to public land. Although he is far from alone in this mindset, his is an ardent and effective approach among conservatives. He works to demonize opposing views, intimidate opponents, and assert incredulous nonsense guised as compassionate conservatism while appearing to have a working agenda consistent with the needs of extractive industries. He refers to people under his charge-the people who live and recreate in Utah that is- who do not agree with him as “bunny lovers, tree huggers, and rock lickers.”
Noel is making a bid to be the head of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency he seems to publicly despise, presumably to either dismantle it or overhaul it to an unrecognizable state.
He perceives advocates for limiting resource extraction to protect Utah’s striking red-rock landscapes, wildlife, rivers, and archaeological resources as enemies to the rural communities of Utah and believes such practices harm the land rather than protect it. He cites no credible sources of information to validate such claims, however, and is an ardent advocate for extractive industries and development.
Noel is an example of what I mean when I say that what was once a mindset held exclusively in small and easily discredited groups, is now gaining the ground it needs to be a viable force and threat to the legislative process that once stopped it in its tracks.
The current atmosphere contains more than veiled threats without teeth to the sanctity of hard-fought-for and won public land policy. It represents a clear and present danger to it because this president and administration are sympathetic to the maligned agendas of the extractive industries and the legislators owned by them. They could very conceivably, and likely with absolute impunity, overturn FLPMA, the Property Clause, and the Antiquities Act for that matter. What was once protected by the courts will no longer be, and the consequences will be grave and real.
That is why it is more important now than it has ever been to become informed and engaged activists and advocates for the land and the environment we all live in. It is not enough to merely vote your conscience, recycle and reuse your waste, and tell the waiter you would like your beverage without a straw.
I was recently approached by a person who asked me what I thought of the whole land debacle and in particular what I thought of the outdoor retailer Patagonia’s proverbial removing of the gloves as it spearheaded a pullout of the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City and made know its intent to litigate with the Trump Administration over the attempt to overturn the Bears Ears National Monument designation.
I began by asking him if he really wanted to know what I thought. When he seemed sincere in his intent to know, I inquired whether he knew of the history of our public lands and the legislation mentioned in this article. He acquiesced that he did not. I then asked him how he could, with such conviction, support a mandate for something he did not understand all sides of. He asked me if I recognized the overreach of the federal government. We both saw valid points to one another’s concerns, and a healthy debate ensued. I hope it continues.
This may be one of the most important discussions of our generation, folks. Please inform yourselves and get involved. You are, whether you choose to be our not.
See you out there.
Through brand marketing and sponsorship of professional athletes, outdoor retailers promote their gear and merchandise through the extraordinary talents and lives of the few in order to sell to the many. The people who accomplish such phenomenal athletic feats and live adventurous lives are thrilling to watch by any standard, but the advertising is targeted at the lay, amateur, or hobbiest adventurer hoping to add more adventure to their life – and the brand ambassadors do indeed sell.
But the subliminal message at the core of such advertising instills disappointment in the common life where none may have been before and where none need be. For the masses who were not born with extraordinary athletic ability or who do not have the financial luxury to live lives of travel, leisure, and adventure, to be peddled messages suggesting that a fulfilling lifestyle is one of unending adventure ultimately delivers disillusion and disappointment in an ordinary life by comparison. The ads feed off the hopes and dreams of a new life, a life not one’s own, lived in the virtual reality of the mind and realized more often than not, through shallow consumption.
While the end goal of a business is ultimately profit, the ends do not need to justify the means. For what is lacking in promoting highlights and snapshots of the world’s greatest athletic ability is the depth of personhood. What is absent is the nobility of character and depth that comes from the day-to-day struggles and growth that come with the endeavor to live a good life – of which even athletes must contend when they are not putting up a first ascent or catching a wave.
While the elite life of a professional athlete captured in moments of brilliance is phenomenal, it does not provide a good example of right living. Because the message sets the bar at a level out of reach for most it is like selling a shooting star: something beautiful and out of reach, distant and spectacular, to be observed from afar.
The noble life, on the other hand, is one that anyone can have. It is a life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, but is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
The noble life, unlike the athletic ideal, is at once worthy, honorable, and decent – both for the common man and woman, and the elite athlete as well. There is no biological barrier, no contingencies on net worth, and no in-bred disappointment, except that which comes from the endeavor to overcome failure in one’s pursuit of fine personal qualities born from upholding high moral principles and ideals.
This is not to say that there is something wrong with athletic ability, or promoting activities in the outdoors, for those are good and necessary and foster love and appreciation for the landscape, but caring for the earth requires so much more than using it for play, at least if that care is meant to translate into action.
Sustaining recreational lands requires knowledge, maintenance, care, and labor. If we do not understand what the earth offers us and requires of us, then we will continue to destroy it. For no matter how much one may love the earth, one can only live fully in it by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life.
To promote such a lifestyle, a company would be dealing with the common man and woman, the laborers, the advocates, the volunteers, the safe-keepers and people who not only play and develop themselves in the outdoors, but who work and care and try to restore the outdoors. To do this, a company would have to watch, and listen, and capture what amounts to a life fueled by spiritual and community values not quantifiable or easy; at certain points it may even deal with mysteries and unknowns, for the actions are but a hope and dream engineered in the mind of an individual brave enough to put those ideas into action. What they would find is that these undefinable and often unseen rules such people have chosen to live by have results, among others, that are economic – and probably profitable as well.
To promote such a life would add depth to the message of the company while giving people the space to love where they are, to rejoice in what they have, and to be comfortable in their own skin, knowing that it is the person wearing the clothes or using the gear that gives such things value, rather than the other way around. In short, the person adds value to the company because they feel valued and proud of their own life and their life’s work and the brand becomes a part of it.
For, if we have a common purpose, which is to value our lands, to promote a clean and healthy environment, and to sustain outdoor recreation for generations to come, how successful do we hope to be by peddling dissatisfaction that leaves people unhappy with their own lives and hence will not invest in their home community because they are consumed with living a different life elsewhere?
If one does not find value in the day-to-day investment in the place in which they live, no amount of moral messages or theoretical ethics from a business will change anything. To echo what Wendell Berry suggested, issues on a landscape or world scale cannot be solved until it is understood and dealt with by local people as a multitude of local problems hinging on the relationship between them and the local ecology, community, and culture.
I love the cool blue light of the morning in the summer when the world is sleepy and peaceful – or at least seemingly so. Before the dazzling sun shoots its rays over the horizon and casts everything in golden light the bluish hues make the green of my yard greener, it makes the red of the peaches bundled on the tree deeper, and the colors tug at the lid of my heart, prying open the chamber where hope is found.
A new dew-covered day awaits. Between sips of coffee I inspect the progress that the work of my hands have begun and look for pests trying to undo it. My garden harkens back to memories of my childhood where the garden was a place of wonder my mother invited us in to. The earthy smell, the deep, rich soil, and the sweet flavor of the food our hands helped grow implanted the taste of a kind of pleasure found nowhere else. The sight of small plants pushing through the soil still thrill me and I watch them grow with eager anticipation like a child on Christmas Eve.
I drag a hose across my yard; the zig-zagging pattern that takes me from the garden on one side to the grapes on the other is now set in habit. My feet count out cadence across the cool, wet grass as I inspect the lawn, the sunflowers, the fruit trees, the pumpkin and zucchini, and even the ponderosas. I scan the ground for snails, my tiny nemesis. Only one snail today but its maddening presence sends me into a tizzy. Where do they come from?
I notice, to my chagrin that the weeds are back, springing up as fast as I can pull them and my mind wrestles with the allure of using pesticides. But there is something cathartic in pulling weeds, in feeling the roots struggling to hang on to the soil slowly break free in your fingertips, and know that the precious water and minerals will surely go to the vegetables inching their way toward the sky. The pride and joy that comes from toiling in my garden is a strange thing. It is a fierce protective feeling that translates into a deep love for this little patch of earth I call my own.
My world has been reduced down to a small acre lot that takes constant care and upkeep. It is a full-time job. I think about all the money spent on plants and seeds and water, and all the hours spent watering, fertilizing, and weeding and then marvel at the nagging politicians and citizens calling for less spending on our public lands.
I think of the millions of acres managed by a small cadre of range technicians, soil conservationists, physical scientists, and law enforcement officers, among others, whose thankless job it is to do the job of an army, with the budget of a non-governmental organization. I think about the money I have spent on my one little acre and multiply it by millions and gawk at the pittance national land managers are given to manage the Nation’s gardens. The scale is hard to wrap my head around.
Wendell Berry said of the Peruvian fields tended by Andean peasants in The Gift of Good Land, “It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to see how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little, they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch – picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. The prime characteristic of the native, pre-Spanish agriculture was its concentration on each individual plant, which accounts in large part for the great varietal diversity of the native crops.”
As my mind ping-pongs between the panoramic and intimate my yard lights up with the first touch of the sun, long strands of light stretch across the yard, glowing against the parts still cast in shadow. For one sweet hour nothing existed but my labor, the words I dug out of my limited vocabulary to capture my thoughts, and the solid land under my feet.
These days I measure my life not only with coffee spoons but in cool mornings and sultry evenings with my hands in soft, warm dirt. I measure my life in handfuls. Though I wish my days were filled with travel to exotic places, mountain tops, crags, and beaches, like so many I see, the earth I work anchors me to this place. As much as I long to put my feet on our Nation’s lands and taste again the wild solitude and peace they provoke, the work I do at home translates to an appreciation for the work so needed, done by so few and with such meager resources and support on our public lands.
Wes Jackson said, “…the cause of waste is alienation from the land: where there is alienation, stewardship has no chance.” We love what we invest in, what we pour ourselves into, what we give in time, sweat, and work – whether it is a career, volunteering, parenting, gardening, tending relationships, or investment in the land. When we give in this way our love bubbles over into a fierce, protective love.
As we consider our values and haggle over the economy, we would be wise to remember the origin of the word economy which is the order of households and that economic health should be judged by the health of households, both individual and communal, both on a small scale and a large scale, both personal and national, and that we have a part to play in it. E pluribus unum; out of many, one. By being little and aware of the details of our own individual lives we begin to grasp and understand the complexities of the large-scale and see how our small yet significant place in it, working in concert with our neighbors, communities, and citizenry, intricately shapes the fabric our society.
It’s not fire season yet but it’s as busy as fire season. Preparation for seasonal firefighters coming on, for training, and for fire readiness reviews fill the days, but nothing looms larger than the budget. The fire management staff meets weekly if not more often to look at the budget and try to squeeze more proverbial drops of blood from this turnip. Can we bring someone on a pay period early? Can we afford another seasonal? Can we staff our engines with the required number of people or do we put one engine out of service?
Questions like these fill my mind. I think about budget more than I’d like and I’m always the bad news bear. Nine times out of 10 if the answer is no, it’s because of budget.
Last week I spent five days in Washington D.C. for training. I didn’t get a lot of time to sight-see but I did visit the Iwo Jima memorial at night. It was stunning. While riding the Metro to and from my training I listened to the audio book The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Coincidentally, the following week I was in Phoenix for training and left town early enough to stop at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. My mind jumped back and forth between the crisp and chiseled magnificence of the monument I stood before in D.C. and the wild mountain side I found myself on a week later. They are both memorials commemorating American heroism but Yarnell Hill lies within our borders, it happened here, not on a foreign shore and marks a decidedly western tragedy.
The mountain was covered in wildflowers so prolific it looked like they were trying to erase the remnants of the fire, but the charred trees, cactus carcasses, and black stumps are still there. The thick, hazardous fuels that burned in the fire left room for new vegetation to regenerate; the by-product fuels crews produce when there is money to do this kind of work before a fire ignites and wreaks havoc because it hasn’t been done.
A sweet honey suckle scent lilted on the air and I kept my nose up, sniffing like a dog following the scent of something fantastic. I bent to smell half a dozen flowers but never discovered the origin of the fragrance. There were so many flowers leaning into the trail and whipping my legs that I looked like a bee after it’s been in a flower, the powdery pollen making light lashes across my legs before exploding into fine particles stuck to and glowing on my black pants.
It was overcast and a cold wind blew hard from the south making the lonely landscape more subdued than it already was. It wasn’t hard to imagine that fateful day when the wind shifted and turned the fire on 19 men with nowhere to go. As I walked, my mind was like a teakettle blowing its whistle in alarm each time images of this event bubbled up and mixed with my anxiety over our anorexic land management budgets. With already strangled and anemic budgets handed down by Congress and hampered by conflicting policy within the BLM, the prospect of bigger budget cuts next fiscal year from the new Administration sends a chill through my blood; not just because there will be less money, but because we will have to do more with less and many things will fall off the table. This means that saving money will take precedence over having an adequate staff to do the job, to do it well, and to do it safely.
For people not aware of the business side of wildland fire – or public lands management, the few brief mentions of budget woes in the book about the Granite Mountain Hotshots probably wouldn’t register on the radar – but they did for me. I could relate and shared the frustration with those angry and frustrated by budget constraints when I listened to how cuts to wildland fire budgets had been off-set with prison crews because they were cheaper, and how State Forester Scott Hunt warned that the cuts would have a significant impact on public safety, namely through the devastating drop in the number and availability of personnel and resources to manage the lands and fight wildfires.
So often when tragedies occur we look to the decision makers on the ground for answers: Which policies did they break? What did they miss or ignore? Could they have made better decisions? We do this not only to assess blame or to understand, but to help ourselves believe that if something different had been decided, the tragedy would not have occurred. But rarely do we look at the pernicious root cause of so many of the decisions: budget cuts made in the chambers of Congress.
This is not to say that if we had adequate budgets no one would ever die, but to suggest that budgets do play a part in how decisions are made and how safe people are. In both the Yarnell Hill Fire and the South Canyon Fire, resources were scarce when they needed them most. Fires do not get in line to ignite, they pop off like popcorn in a popper; dozens of fires can be going at once and the resources go fast. Most Incident Commanders know to order every resource they think they might need to fight a fire because if they don’t get those resources first, they might not get them at all.
Part of the problem for the BLM in particular is the policy determining which fund pays for what. There are two main pots of money: preparedness and suppression. Policy clearly defines what both are for. In the Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation book (Red Book) preparedness is defined as the state of being “ready” to provide an appropriate response to the wildland fires based on identified objectives and is the result of activities that are planned and implemented prior to fire ignitions. It states that preparedness activities should focus on developing interagency response capabilities that will result in safe, effective, and efficient fire operations aligned with risk-based fire management decisions.
Suppression is putting preparedness into action to fight the fire in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. Preparedness dollars are given to the district as part of their budget on an annual basis. Suppression dollars come from a national emergency fund.
The NWCG Interagency Incident Business Management Handbook (Yellow Book) states that any time worked in support of the incident will be charged to the incident. Hours worked performing regular home unit duties will be charged to the employee’s home unit funds. In other words, when you are on a fire, your time should be charged to the fire – or suppression.
Most labor costs go to preparedness, but strangely firefighters have to charge their base eight hours to preparedness even when they are suppressing fires per policy in the BLM Standards for Fire Business Management (Orange Book). Aside from the fact that this conflicts with policy outlined in the Red and Yellow books, it basically means that preparedness dollars, those set aside to get prepared for a fire, are being used for suppression, or for fighting the fire. This is detrimental for several reasons.
First, it fixes money given to the district and locks it up, giving very little wiggle room for decision-makers to make sound decisions based on the best tactics to fight the fire or be prepared for the fire season. Second, it means that regardless of where the firefighters are working, be it out of state or in a different region, that district is paying to have the labor used elsewhere. This means they not only lose the labor, but those dollars are not going to their own district – perhaps for hazardous fuels reduction. And third, this means less hiring and thus less people to manage very chaotic and complex situations, less equipment and tools for getting the job done, and less stewardship of the land being managed for the citizens of this country.
Policy states that budget should not determine how a fire is fought and yet it was on Yarnell Hill.
As I walked on that hallowed ground, an entire hill set aside in remembrance of the firefighters who died there, I thought about the American landscape and what it holds, how our Republic was literally built upon it and that people across the centuries have put sweat, labor, toil, fought for and even burned and died on it. Our lands tell these stories, they are living memorials from coast to coast, but particularly in the West where the land is the defining factor of the people, the communities, and the culture. If land management agencies lose funding, public lands will be no more.
Walking down the deserted and lonely hill, I thought of something said in the book, “We’re the front line,” Danny said to Wade. “On September eleventh, 2001, they didn’t call the navy. They didn’t call the Marine Corps. They called the policemen and the firemen. We are the soldiers of our community.”
Our public lands are the Homeland; they tell the story of our Nation and the people who built it. If we do not adequately fund land management agencies, who will manage and be stewards of our public lands, and further, will there even be any lands left to manage?
We are told that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a line used so often it’s easy to dismiss. But with a Republican controlled congress and a Republican administration in the White House, we are beginning to see what virtually unchecked power can produce. Many important issues are under attack, one of them being our public lands and how we manage them.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has introduced two bills aimed public lands and he is not the only one. He belongs to a large cadre of Republicans not only in Utah but across the West leading a concerted effort to dismantle open access and management of iconic American landscapes and open spaces.
House Bill 621 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell 3.3 million acres of land that “serves no purpose for taxpayers.” That of course begs the question: Whose purpose do they serve? (See post script)
H.R. 622, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, first introduced last year, removes the law enforcement function from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service. According to Chaffetz’s website, the bill calls for deputizing local law enforcement, combined with block grant funding, to empower existing duly elected law enforcement offices to carry out these responsibilities. Posse comitatus come to mind?
In Nevada, Representative Mark Amodei introduced H.R. 243, The Nevada Land Sovereignty Act (it is also in the Senate) to prohibit the further extension or establishment of national monuments in the State of Nevada except by express authorization of Congress.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced Senate Bill 33, the Improved National Designation Process Act. This bill provide for congressional approval of national monuments and restrictions on the use of national monuments, to establish requirements for the declaration of marine national monuments, and for other purposes.
Similar bills from across the West are being sponsored in Congress by those irked by the constraints of federal law and public lands. Like many before them, these opportunistic representatives see this moment as their time to do away, once and for all, with lands set aside for the enjoyment and use of all Americans. In Utah alone they want to undo Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument, and they want to do away with the Antiquities Act.
While giving away three million acres might not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and trying to help local communities is important, it is also important to understand that public lands and the conservation and management of them carry forward the long American tradition of striving for the social democratic ideals of equality and commonwealth. Retaining the last remnants of our great heritage of land benefits us all.
The sad truth about local groups or users is that they often look only at their own needs. All people do this. It takes discipline to commit in a very real way to ideals and principles, especially when they do not produce immediate benefits. Having a perspective based solely on limited local experiences ignores the rest of the country and the Nation as a whole. Everyone struggles economically; everyone wants the benefits of the government while maintaining autonomy without constraints. But there are limits to freedom and there is no guarantee in life that you will always have a thriving economy or that your way of life will never change.
As Garrison Keiller recently said in a Washington Post op-ed, “Jobs are lost to automation, innovation, obsolescence, the moving finger of fate. The carriage industry was devastated by the automobile, and the men who made surreys and broughams and hansoms had to learn something new; the Pullman porter union was hit hard by the advent of air travel and the porters sent their sons to college; the newspaper business was hit hard by Craigslist. Too bad for us. Who doesn’t get this? The idea that the government is obligated to create a good living for you is one the Republican Party has fought since Adam was in the third grade. It’s the party of personal responsibility. But there they are, promising to make the bluebirds sing. As if.”
One of the last great bastions of equality is public space, open and accessible by all. That those lands are not owned and controlled by the few is a testament to the tenacity and forethought of people who saw not only the potential benefits of preserving them, but the potential loss of not preserving them. Martin Luther King said, “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
Changing the system is not voting for politicians who tell you what you want to hear so that you can win in Congress at the expense of others. That is the system, and to continue on that path will be to witness the tides turn and see another group gain at your expense. Changing the system is working with people you might not otherwise work with to find solutions that benefits everyone to some compromised level. Survival happens through compromise not through hard lines and competition. Compromise is how you don’t lose it all.
Furthermore, to suggest or believe that one group deserves special protection by a majority in Congress, not for ideals of equality or justice but to maintain a status quo, is privilege. That privilege has run its course. Not because monuments have been designated or there are restrictions on industry, but because that is how life and the economy and progress work. Nothing is static. That is not to say that rural communities do not matter or deserve the Nation’s care like all other groups, it just means that old ways give way to new.
The right way to move forward is not to go backward to the “good old days” but to accept the march of time and adapt and move with it by being creative and open-minded, by working with others to find solutions that maintain traditions but also embrace progress, and by caring for others by putting yourself in their shoes and allowing them to step into yours. Different user groups who come to the table and work together have the ability to not only address local needs, but to address local needs while ensuring that National traditions and principles form the foundation of the work.
A perspective on public lands that takes into account the entire nation, our whole country, is what’s required. The long view that includes all people, the entire economy; that seeks to balance the costs and rewards among user groups equally – to say nothing of the redemptive act of restoring a respectful relationship with Native Americans – as well as the scientific benefits, the historic preservation of artifacts, and the health of ecosystems, watersheds, and biodiversity, is the hard work many ignore and some members of Congress are shirking for short term benefits at the expense of our posterity.
Our public lands embody American ideals and principles of stewardship and responsibility, the history of a young Nation’s wild and audacious drive to expand westward, of the awakening that preservation for the benefit of current and future generations is the moral thing to do, that equal and open access for all regardless of economic class is an American birthright, and yes, the economic growth that built this nation into what it is and provides benefits and quality of life we all enjoy. But they also embody this Nation’s dedication to the ideal, the ethic, that some things have value far beyond monetary worth and that they are worth preserving and protecting as they are.
Though rural people may not feel privileged, they are fortunate in ways others are not. They have open land and the freedom to roam unhindered right outside their door, they have clean air to breath and clear vistas to see, and they wake to beauty every morning. They are not encumbered with overcrowding, traffic, or pollution.
Struggling financially is never fun, but it’s easier to handle when you can escape into paradise and forget your worries for a while – to enjoy a picnic with your children in the shade of a ponderosa pine because it’s all you can afford and be queen for an afternoon knowing it’s not the lack of money, but this that your children will remember. Open spaces soothe the soul and enable one to clear their head and face the realities of life rejuvenated and refreshed. Not everyone has this at their fingertips. It is wealth that no amount of money can compensate for and yet it’s so easy to forget when the worries of life overwhelm.
The people who live near such places know this. Many claim that the best protection is no protection; don’t put it on the map in other words. There is some truth to this idea. We have all witnessed a special, secret spot get shared on social media and then watch its exposure change it into a popular destination, to our chagrin. But we don’t own these places, no matter how much we love them; they belong to everyone, young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, and from all backgrounds, genders, cultures, religious or political viewpoints, and walks of life. And without proper protections and management they are vulnerable in un-imagined ways.
Tourists and outfitters will come with or without designations and protections, and so will the oil and mining companies – but with the help of short-sighted and opportunistic politicians, the influx will not be managed well, if at all, and the aim will be profit. Those who stand in the way of that, who aren’t profitable, will be expendable.
Political expediency is the act of using forethought only when it coincides with one’s own wishes, where the most blatantly obvious facts can be dismissed or ignored because they are simply unwelcome. It is this above all else that we should be most wary of.
U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey said in 1901, “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” This was the prelude to the Antiquities Act that the Iowa congressman sponsored and put before Congress and ultimately saw enacted into law in 1906. Lacey was a Civil War veteran who had seen first-hand the destruction perpetrated by man against man, but he also lived at the heyday of man against nature, when wildlife such as bison and the passenger pigeon were being hunted to extinction and the West was not only open to expansion but to wanton greed for resources such as timber and minerals, and for ancient artifacts of American antiquity.
While these places and artifacts belonged to native tribes and peoples, they had no voice in the discussion taking place between the European-American factions discussing their fate. The landscapes that held their stories, sacred sites, histories, and surviving culture would be determined by greedy businessmen, hungry ranchers, worried anthropologists, determined educators, and warring politicians. What was happening across the Southwest, whether intentionally or not, was the white-washing or cultural cleansing of pre-settlement history as sites and artifacts were looted and sold to the highest bidder.
Regimes throughout history have sought to wipe out the memory, beliefs, and histories of opposing cultures and ethnicities through book burnings or destruction of cultural and historical sites thereby making the destruction of their opposition complete. To destroy places, writings, and texts not only destroyed the physical existence of these cultures, but also their cultural knowledge. German Nazis and the Taliban in the Middle East offer a couple of examples. It became such a problem during World War II that in 1954 the U.N. adopted the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to protect cultural heritage. They explain that cultural heritage reflects the life of the community, its history and its identity. Its preservation helps to rebuild broken communities, re-establish their identities, and link their past with their present and future.
While no one here in America is engaging in intentional cultural cleansing, our history with Native Americans is well-known and documented. Our actions have bespoken an arrogance and preference for our own history over theirs, or even worse, the seizure and ownership of their history as our own, using it for prestige or profit. Like putting a new coat of paint across a mural, we have been writing over the rich history of those who came before us, and thereby in small measure, erasing their presence and cultural identity.
Despite the reality of the spoils of conquest, where we said, “This is now mine,” we eventually embraced a more communal view of natural resources and lands with the designation of public lands for the use and enjoyment of all Americans as a National Heritage and birthright.
The designation of Bears Ears National Monument was an historic if not redemptive event, not just in terms of designating the monument, but in terms of healing broken relationships and a scattered and broken past. Allowing Native Americans to co-manage the monument and have a say in the destiny of their homeland and history not only enables them to reconnect to their past, but in a significant way, to join in the present and move into the future with the rest of Americans as equals.
With a reconvening Congress meeting under new leadership and power, the ever insidious threats to the Antiquities Act and the rich heritage public lands provide is as imperiled as ever. If Congress succeeds in disposing of public lands or undoing the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, it will not only be a slap in the face to Native Americans who have long been waiting to be recognized and treated with dignity and respect, but a slap in the face to all of us who share in the communal access public lands afford. Those landscapes now hold our shared cultural heritage and our identity as well.
Despite his valiant efforts and success at getting the Antiquities Act passed, Lacey’s game and bird law came too late to save the passenger pigeon, with the death of the last bird marking the species extinction in 1914. It was a stunning symbol of the squandering of America’s natural bounty. In a speech to the League of American Sportsmen in 1901, Lacey revealed the depth of his concerns about such waste and misuse of natural resources—about, as he put it, mankind’s “omnidestructive” ways wherein he warned that if the destruction was allowed to continue, the world would “become as useless as a sucked orange (Sellars, 2007).”
If we are not vigilant, we may live to see the extinction not only of the Antiquities Act, but the extinction of our access to public lands and the natural bounty they still hold in wildlife, recreation, solitude, beauty, healing, and history. We may also let the opportunity pass to lock arms with our Native brothers and sisters and create a shared future where their voices add to the depth and meaning of our own.
Post Script: Rep. Chaffetz has withdrawn H.R. 621