President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell are deliberating over whether to designate the Bears Ears National Monument. You can’t walk through a grocery store without seeing newspaper headlines shouting that Utah’s leaders vow to fight the monument. What is going on?
This isn’t the first time the passionate politics of presidential monuments have come to the Beehive State, where our motto is “Industry.” In 1996 President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah. This was the largest monument declaration in the history of the continental US, and it came as a shock to our appalled congressional delegation, governor, state and local elected officials.
Why does Utah oppose national monument designations like the Bears Ears? Here are 10 reasons:
- A monument designation does not create and does not necessarily protect the beautiful, iconic scenery that we all know and love. What it does do is restrict access, prevent multiple other public uses, and harm local economies.
- Presidents do these “midnight monuments” in a process not much different from other midnight actions- like criminal pardons or judicial appointments. The lame-duck window of time is a dangerous one where an individual, agency, or group has political power without the appropriate check of political accountability. This has been the case ever since President John Adams stacked the courts with Federalists after losing his re-election bid to President Jefferson and sneaking out of town at 4 AM. People screamed then and they scream now because of the proper voice of the people, heard best not through public opinion polls slanted this way or that, but through our duly elected representatives, is not heard.
- Local governments are, in my experience, usually led by principled, salt of the earth people who are pillars of their community. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, for example, does not want to see his children and grandchildren have to move somewhere else to be able to raise a family. He loves his area and wants what is best for it. He is willing to sacrifice for his principles.
- Environmental litigation groups are also generally motivated by pure reasons and principles. Tim DeChristopher was also willing to go to jail for his principles. Conservation group beliefs are often so strong that they are willing to use the courts, the threat of time and money consuming litigation, executive actions, or any other means they have to accomplish their cosmic mission, with little regard for democratic norms and processes. As the political left has been appropriately pointing out in 2016, political norms matter- the right way to go is to reason with and convince the people and govern through their elected representatives. That is the American way.
- Due to the accidents of history (east to west migration, the Louisiana Purchase, Mexican conquest, rainfall levels, and so on) the federal government owns the vast majority of the land in the American West, but virtually no land in the South, Midwest, and East Coast. In a very real sense then, the western states are not on an equal footing with their peers to the east, and we rightfully resent the hell out of it.
- Environmental considerations are important, but so are energy, economic, national defense, recreation, and other considerations. Land management is not an easy task and I don’t envy anyone who takes it on. But a process that gives the most stubbornly independent-minded people in the country- namely those who made the desert blossom like a rose in the rural west- little to no voice in what happens in their communities, backyards, and surrounding environs? That is a formula for trouble.
- Past history has shown that the only thing transparent about midnight monuments is the desire of presidents to add a resume bullet on their way out. The people in Blanding have much more at stake than a footnote on page 864 of President Obama’s 3rd autobiography.
- The public misperception is that we are talking about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or Delicate Arch. We are talking, especially in Utah, about millions of acres of land. This isn’t Teddy Roosevelt talking about Yosemite Valley in a tent with John Muir. This is a kingly action by a President on lands they usually have not been to and never will go to. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was about Vice President Gore’s desire to kill off American coal production, nothing more and nothing less.
- Concerns over the scenery, tribal relics, and school kids are real, but often are mascots and pretexts for the real underlying battle. That is a policy battle over energy, environment, economics, national defense, recreation, and so forth.
- Those kinds of policy battles should be handled through the political process by our elected leaders in the county, state, and federal legislative bodies, not through midnight actions by lame-duck executives.