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