The hot story this week is the presidential decree establishing the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. With a swipe of his pen, President Obama set aside over one million acres of Utah wilderness as land too sacred, too historical, too intergenerational and too pristine to be left in the control of anyone and anything short of the all-seeing and all-powerful federal government.
Utah conservatives are up in arms. They say President Obama abused the Antiquities Act (he did). They say his timing in doing so as he leaves office feels politically motivated (it does). They say he ignored the broader interests of Utah and the nation (clearly he did). And they say they will do everything in their power to undo what has been done (and clearly they will try).
But my conservative friends need to pump the brakes on Bears Ears. Take a step back. Take a deep breath. Regain your composure. Assess where we now stand. And, whatever you do, do not respond in kind – don’t behave as recklessly as the man and movement you so criticize.
My first congressional boss, friend and mentor, Bill Dannemeyer, taught me some very valuable lessons in affecting public policy. Every issue has a pressure point, maybe more than one. Focus on those points of most impact. Don’t overreach – the devil always oversteps his bounds. Represent the public interest and tell the truth – it’s the only way a serious punch to the opposition will feel good. Get inside the head of your opponent. Know with whom you are dealing. And, lastly, win. Don’t waste precious time and resources on losing.
With that solid counsel in mind, conservatives upset with the Bears Ears designation need to stand down for the moment, refocus and regroup. Most of all, act in the moment for futurity. Don’t rest futurity on the pride of your past arguments, past efforts and past assessments. Chances are you were acting in behalf of doing the right thing. Maybe you were acting with right reason. But clearly you failed to do it the right way.
So start anew. You might begin by reading the presidential proclamation establishing the monument. Yes, it reads as if written by the editors of National Geographic and Frommer’s Travel Guide. But read it. You will see none of this was done in haste. The fact that the monument was designated by a lame duck president in the waning days of his administration doesn’t mean he woke up yesterday and remembered he has power to abuse. This decision was months, if not years, in the making.
Also consider the Native American tribal opposition. Don’t mistake SUWA for Navajo. Just because you have every reason to ignore radical environmentalists who supported the creation of the new monument, you should not ignore the deep underlying sense of appreciation shown by Native American interests in the area. And, by the way, it doesn’t matter one bit if those interests seem divided. Conservatives know that “bipartisan” doesn’t mean you have one Indian on your side. Historical sensitivities for the supportive Native Americans involved should not be ignored. White men have screwed over American Indians for centuries. The least we can do now is respect their sensitivity to what they perceive as another screwing, respect them for leaving the table of collaboration and not become overly sensitive ourselves to their perceived victory.
Rather than lick our prideful wounds, conservatives have a new opportunity to lead in fixing this policy overreach. First, don’t get rid of the Antiquities Act. Don’t even exempt Utah (that’s a stupid idea). The Act serves a good purpose. Its abuse is the problem, not the Act itself. It could have been used properly and precisely to protect the House on Fire up Mule Canyon and other sites. Remember, don’t overreach. You can always make the Act subject to Congress not just the Executive.
Second, remember that Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative already carved out most of this designation as a monument. There is your starting point for fixing what Obama has done. In other words, don’t repeal Obama’s designation, simply use congressional action to amend it (presuming our president-elect will play ball).
Third, if you read the presidential proclamation creating Bears Ears, you will notice that its authority relies heavily on the public interest. How about conservatives make a better case for the public interest. Perhaps amend the designation to define the public interest. If the current choice is a definition that pits historical artifacts against four-wheeling yahoos, we lose. But what if the public interest pits our past with the realities of our future? I think we can win that argument.
Lastly, don’t feign respect for others. Be statesmen as you fix what has been done. John F. Kennedy wisely said, “Let both sides explore what rightly unites us instead of belaboring those problems that divide us.” If disappointed conservatives feel stepped on after having created a table of dialogue, don’t undo your good deeds by behaving as your opponents.
Why do we conservatives so often act like anything that doesn’t go our way is the end of the world? Bears Ears is fixable. Continue to behave responsibly and respectfully – and just fix it where you can.