Most recreationists who are even slightly aware of land management issues on public lands are familiar with the Bundys and their stand against the government. It is safe to say that most think the Bundys are mistaken in their approach to public lands. It is equally safe to say that none would put themselves in the same category as the Bundys. Recently; however, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted to amend the Wilderness Act to allow bicycles in wilderness areas at the behest of some in the mountain biking community.
Ted Stoll, founder and executive director of the California-based Sustainable Trails Coalition, who is the author of this bill, has been seeking out help from the very representatives actively trying to take public lands – and why wouldn’t he go to the representatives who value wilderness areas the least? While Stoll and his supporters followed the legislative process and did it the legal way, in contrast to how the Bundys have been doing it, their efforts to mine the ground of protected wilderness landscapes, whether they intended it or not, are providing the first in-roads for opportunists seeking similar access with designs of their own.
In 1960 Wallace Stegner wrote what has come to be known as The Wilderness Letter. It was written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission regarding recreation in wilderness. In it he states that recreation has no more to do with wilderness than it does with churches or with the “American Dream” and argued against recreation in wilderness areas because the idea of wild places existing was more valuable than peoples’ access to recreational experiences in them.
He went on to explain how the wild landscape of our country built and forged our national character making us who we are, giving us quiet and solitude from the industrial and technological world we created, and that wilderness, however impractical to some, provides blessings of a spiritual kind to those who enter, and can calm those who simply contemplate it.
Our national identity and character is without question linked to the land. The expansion westward shaped the people of this Nation as surely as the Revolution did; it’s in our blood to roam and get caught up in the vast landscape of our country. People not born here but who choose the United States as home can sense it and feel and immerse themselves in it as well.
Stegner said, “The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea. That gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise–a sort of wilderness bank.”
We should not forget our history or the untamed land from which it grew; and in remembering, we should fight to preserve and protect it.
Our protection should come from a place of gratitude. We enjoy rights, access, and a standard of living built on the experiences and lessons learned from those who came before us. Few of us have lived in a place or time where we could not drink the water, breathe the air, or eat the food. That is a blessing many in the world do not have.
Few of us have witnessed rivers catch on fire due to pollution, or watched thousands die as industrial smog settled over a city, or have had to live with the slow death caused by contamination or living down wind or down river of noxious poisons or toxins. Few of us have seen wildlife die slow and agonizing deaths from lead poisoning or pesticides. This is because people before us learned that “progress” has costs and passed legislation and implemented regulations in order to protect life and a basic standard of living. But that doesn’t mean it will stay this way.
We could be the ones who let it slip away. It is on us now to decide if we will maintain our collective civic conscience that ensures benefits for the good of all of us. Either our hard work or our complicity will shape the lives of those who come after us. As Gifford Pinchot said 100 years ago about our generation, “Our duty is to the future. To ensure that people in 2010 have a country of clean water, healthy forests, and open land will require battle with certain groups, namely the alliance between business and politics.” What will the generation 100 years from now have to say of what we passed on to them?
Today we stand witness to decisions being made by an administration that is undoing much of the hard work done by American pioneers – much of it the manifestation of the alliance between business and politics. We are witnessing a heretofore unseen zeal to slash and burn through historic and unprecedented ethical human progress, progress that revealed our values and character to the world, and it is being done without a care. It is such an overwhelming attack that it will take generations to fix and recover from if we do nothing to stop it – and that work will have to be done by our children and their children.
The policies being dismantled, and the decisions being made today, foretells a future where we might very well live to see access to our public lands disappear. Situations like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan might become the norm. We could see more rivers filled with mine tailings as the EPA is gutted and made inept. We may witness the death of our national forests as climate change moves into fifth gear while we do nothing. Our children’s children may never get the chance to see wild salmon, or hear the howl of a wolf, or experience a starry night because of what we do or do not do right now. We may witness and experience poverty – not just in terms of wealth – the likes of which most of us have never seen, least of which could be the loss of experiencing the last remnants of our wild lands as they were 100 years ago.
According to the Department of Interior, more than 500 million people visit National Parks and Monuments, wildlife refuges, and recreational sites annually. Additionally, the Forest Service statistics shows 173 million visits annually to national forests and 300 million visits to scenic byways and other travel routes near national forest lands. This says nothing of the development around the edges of public lands for people who want to live nearby.
It is safe to say that recreationists are the biggest users of public lands. Because of that, we need to be hyper aware of our impacts on the ephemeral and fragile ideals public lands are founded on and endeavor to protect them. Otherwise, we will be no better than others using public lands for their own selfish ends.
We should also recognize the economic value our public lands provide to our governments, both national and local, and by proxy, the benefits those dollars bring to us. The Outdoor Recreation Association believes it will be the economy of the future. Right now tourism and recreation make up the fourth largest economic sector in the country with $887 billion in consumer spending annually, bringing in $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue, and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue. Where do those billions of dollars go? Defense spending? Funding NASA? Roads? Medicaid?
Furthermore, what these numbers do not show is the amount of revenue brought in by international tourists and recreationists. Those dollars are paid by non-citizens who through their spending directly benefit us in terms of tax revenues that we ourselves do not have to pay.
Some in the outdoor industry recognize this, but none are on the forefront of this battle more than Patagonia. If there is a growing movement, they are the tip of the spear. We are witnessing a David and Goliath show-down between Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia and the Federal Government that has escalated into anti-Patagonia tweets from government officials and even an invitation to Yvon Chouinard to come to Washington by Rob Bishop (R-Utah).
Patagonia was the first to stand up to Utah politicians pursuing their anti-public lands agenda in a real way by pulling out of the Outdoor Retailer (OR) show when it was clear Utah representatives would not stop their crusade, causing many other companies to follow suit – eventually leading the OR show to another state.
Patagonia really committed itself when it publicly supported, funded, and advocated for the protection of Bears Ears National Monument. They did so for the climbing certainly, but they didn’t do it just for that – as is clear from the public statements the company has made. Patagonia is fighting for the continued experiences that can only be found in wild places– because as Stegner said, “If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.”
In other words, they are fighting for an American ideal – a uniquely American feeling, and the renewal that comes from immersing yourself in the land.
Chouinard is a living example of the combination between the American Dream and the American Spirit. He built a successful company out of the recreational sports he loves. He played in our wild places and helped pioneer gear for others to play in those wild places also – and now he is fighting for those places. Fishing, surfing, and climbing shaped the 70 year old man we see today. He is what Wallace Stegner described as, “…an American, insofar as he is new and different at all, is a civilized man who has renewed himself in the wild.”
Patagonia is an interesting paradox to behold because the outdoor retail industry has largely been an affable yet harmless group more interested in color combinations of zippers on puffy jackets than public policy, seemingly taking for granted the fight it took to get access to public lands that fuels much of their business; an industry “incapable of driving large-scale global change.” (The Big Business of Resist) Despite the potential, they hardly garnered a look from political players.
When I attended the OR show in 2015 I went to listen to former Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt. I shook my head as I looked around the room at the roughly 300 people in attendance making up a miniscule fraction of the 10,000 that showed up for the OR show. It represented an embarrassingly shallow lack of substance in an industry built on the substance of such individuals as Bruce Babbitt.
Here was a man who came from a ranching family in Northern Arizona who became a lawyer, a governor, and the Secretary of Interior who tackled some of the most complex and controversial issues in public land management resulting in long overdue reforms to mining, grazing, and endangered species law. A man who used his skills as an effective public advocate and teacher to counter the inevitable criticism from political opponents, and was instrumental in defeating the environmental rollback propositions of the Republican’s 1994 manifesto, Contract with America.
Here was a man who was the first Secretary of Interior to restore fire to its natural role in the wild and to tear down dams, restoring river flow into the Atlantic and the Pacific; a man who was personally involved in demonstrating catch and release programs for endangered trout and salmon to highlight how restoring native fish habitats restores economies; the same man who provided recommendations to President Clinton that led to the creation of 21 new monuments protected under the Antiquities Act that are now being undone by President Trump.
The OR industry turned a deaf ear to this man – until now. Babbitt’s words are reaching once deaf ears like the distant rumble of a long gone train. As if rising from a dead and distant past I can hear him say, “Wake up. Your industry – the $646 billion per year outdoor recreation industry – is a sleeping giant. If you mobilize the full economic and political power of your industry, you can change the debate. The persistent, high-stakes debate about public lands that is.” (Jimmy Tobias, 2015, Outside Magazine)
Patagonia did “wake up” and may finally be garnering Washington’s attention, but they are largely a lone wolf in the outdoor retail industry. Many in the industry are still plugging their ears. Many disagree with Patagonia’s stand, disagreed with pulling out of the OR show, and are playing it safe on the sidelines. Why mess up a good thing?
Many believe that Patagonia will take hard blows and may be destroyed in this fight. Many are shaking their heads at what is surely going to be a long legal battle, wondering if Patagonia has the stamina to go the distance and if the company will end up laying off employees to continue their fight.
Patagonia most certainly has something to lose and it’s more than just retail sales; they have put it all on the line in defense of public lands and therefore, could lose it all. But, as former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” They are clearly at the table now and contrary to high ranking political figures poisoning the well by suggesting that Patagonia is catering to coastal elites, the costs they could incur speaks to the integrity of their fight – a fight we all stand to win or lose.
Wallace Stegner quoted Sherwood Anderson writing to Waldo Frank in his Wilderness letter, “Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet…”
And then said, “We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us.”
Bruce Babbitt said, “This is the moment to apply the strength of your industry to the defense of America’s public lands.”
One could argue that Patagonia is doing just that. It’s not just about climbing or just about sales, it’s about the idea behind real places that provide intangible spiritual value to people who need and yearn for it. The land is a gift available to us that we neither earned nor deserve, but have. This fight is not just worthy, but according to Bruce Babbitt, doable – but we have to engage in it.
Let’s hope the outdoor retail industry can produce impactful results as well as create compelling stories to sell merchandise. Let’s hope Patagonia is not just the tip of the spear, but the tip of the spear with the entire Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) behind it – however active behind the scenes or slow to act they may be. “REI alone, with a membership of 16 million – more than three times that of the NRA – is theoretically capable of exerting enormous pressure on lawmakers.” What could the Patagoniac tribe, REI members, and the OIA bring to the table as a united front?
We need to decide where we stand else we become the ranchers of tomorrow. What makes mountain bikers who pushed for the wheels in wilderness legislation similar to ranchers like Cliven Bundy is that they are fighting for their own self-interest. They believe that their wants supersede everything else. It is a short-sighted view. We recreationists would be wise to consider our impacts on the land – we far outnumber ranchers – and should acknowledge and respect limits when pursuing activities that we love.
We should also support those fighting a battle that we stand to benefit from. Here’s to Patagonia and the hope that the OIA stands with them – and that they team up with tested and hardened veterans of the public lands battle, the modern day Teddy Roosevelts – the Babbitts and Udalls of the country – and wins, because if Patagonia and others like them persevere, we will all preserve and maintain a little longer our national character that was shaped and forged by a wild and untamed landscape.
We will reveal to the world that our character is built on more than money, that we respect and value the wisdom and gifts our ancestors gave us, and that we fight for our ideals because it’s who we are and who we will continue to be. And maybe, more importantly, we will leave behind for those coming after us the legacy of caring enough about each other to preserve our wild lands as sanctuaries for anyone seeking a momentary reprieve from a hurting and angry man-made world.
I support our monuments, parks, refuges, forests, ranges, and all public lands. I also support the foundation of law upon which their existence is founded. I support the proud American tradition of leaving some things alone and preserving their existence for present and future generations to enjoy. The value of these lands is incaluable. Their value is beyond what can be exchanged on the stock exchange. If we cannot live with 70% of our lands developed, extracted, and used then we won’t be able to with 100%. Wisdom is learning to live within limits and ingenuity is finding solutions to prosper within them.
Are we really so petulant that we must dispose of it all?
I am also in favor of increasing the budgets for land management agencies to a level that is adequate to manage the land of which Congress has been delinquent in doing. It is a disservice to civil servants and to the public to provide Congress with inflated paychecks and retirement benefits and then cut jobs and budgets for average citizens fulfilling an American mandate. Do the right thing.
“The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”
Comments can be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar
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.
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