More than a few years ago, in the 1970s, Sam Reynolds, an editorial writer at a newspaper in Missoula, Mont., had a birdcage-like box nailed to his office wall in the newsroom. He posted a sign on the door of the box that read, “Inside this cage lives the most destructive animal on the planet.” Open the door and you’d see your mirrored image.
His editorial-page voice in a corporately owned chain newspaper echoed mainstream sentiments of a nascent environmental movement. Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson were important. Earth Day in that college town full of tree huggers was a grass-roots celebration untainted by sales of outdoor chic (Robert Redford’s gorgeous and destructive movie adaptation of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” was a few years away). John McPhee had just published “Encounters with the Archdruid,” a celebration of David Brower’s radical resistance to the Bureau of Reclamation plan to dam up the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
The environmental sensibility reflected in Reynold’s editorials was a long time coming. I’m afraid it will be a long time gone.
About the same time, writer Edward Abbey spoke to a journalism class at the University of Montana. His rant-for-pay focused on the value of destroying Glen Canyon Dam, one of any number of manmade Wonders of the World that enables us to justify destruction, in this case a network of mystical canyons unique in the world. His performance – full-tilt anarchistic, curmudgeonly schtick – was irresponsible. Nothing about flood control, water storage for downstream urban development or power generation. It was puredee atmospherics. It was vulgar. He was offensive. We loved it.
Abbey believed humans destroy everything. The only way to preserve anything was to keep them away.
I was attending the University of Montana then and had a friend in college who was a member of the Piegan Blackfeet tribe in the northwest part of the state. We were both students and did a little fishing together, not much but enough to get to know each other a bit.
On several occasions, while stalking Wily Cutthroat, he told me stories he said were passed down through time from tribal spiritual leaders and elders. To him, they were kernels of wisdom. He made me a believer.
One involved a vision of a train rumbling unstoppable through untouched wildlands, destroying everything and everyone in its path. It could be felt and even heard through vibration of the tracks even though it was miles away. The train’s headlights could barely be seen. As it got closer and closer, it became more and more ominous.
Passengers aboard the train were oblivious. They paid a high price for tickets and intended to enjoy the ride. The sentiment echoed the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “The Egyptians in their banquets exhibited a skeleton to the guests, to remind them of the brevity of human life saying as they did so, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ ”
I believe the Blackfeet elders used the allegory to describe cultural displacement, if not genocide. The train and its well-to-do passengers were an invasive species with the power to destroy an ancient way of life and the natural eco-system it depended on. They came to drill for fossil fuel, dig for treasure and cut down trees. Make money. Natives be damned.
Nowadays, the train has left havoc as it chugged through Grand County, and it’s building steam toward San Juan County. Some of its passengers wear masks of environmental righteousness, promising economic prosperity and religious sanctity. Beware of neo-liberal colonists bearing hedge funds. They’re just as destructive to Old West culture – to health and well-being, community sustainability, clean air and water, an ability to earn a decent living and democratic processes – as the drillers, diggers and cutters.
In June of 2015, a group of ranchers, ATV riders, miners, hunters and archeology buffs – collectively known as the Lands Council – produced a locally grown consensus to protect the Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa area of southeastern Utah. While the results didn’t please everyone, it demonstrated that a bit of civility, transparency and a spirit of compromise can overcome even seemingly intractable, deeply held beliefs.
At ground level, it was a good-faith exercise in representative democracy that worked; at altitude, not so much. Efforts of the group were marginalized by half-truth talking points from a few Salt Lake City Democrats and allied zealots, including a newly formed non-governmental organization called the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, on one end of the political spectrum and sand-bagged on the other by revisions inserted into the sweeping Public Lands Initiative introduced into Congress by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) after the Council’s proposal was publicly vetted. Bishop’s initiative smelled of backroom deals and cronyism. It went nowhere.
The mess illustrates the evolution of the Way of the West: from indigenous peoples versus pilgrims and their mounted protectors with straight-shooting Winchesters and snappy Stetsons versus cattle barons versus sheep herders versus drillers, diggers and cutters versus part-time residents of mountainside McMansions who feel entitled to a $100 meal (with a delicate French red, if you please) and Canyonlands sunset views served up by someone making $7.50 per hour and living in a trailer 50 miles away.
Meet the New West boss, same as the Old West boss.
Multiple foundations, many of their supporters, I assume, owning a few of those McMansions (or at least sharing a colonial worldview), have spent more than $20 million in the pro-Bears Ears campaign, organizing strategy sessions in San Francisco years before the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was formally established and pondering a political alliance with Native American tribes, according to reports of Amy Joi O’Donoghue in the Deseret News.
There are solid reasons why anyone living in San Juan County would be suspicious of the Coalition’s identity, motivations, deep-pocket, out-of-state financial backers and unspecified, never-vetted-in-front-of-a-town-hall-crowd details of its Bears Ears plan.
Like these taken from a report authored by a consultant to San Juan County:
- The Coalition is a non-governmental entity with no legal authority to make land-use planning decisions. It is not accountable to any San Juan County resident or any other citizen of the United States.
- Only two of the five Native American signatories to the Coalition’s proposal possess land within the boundary, a total land area of just 4,818 acres. The other three claim standing by invoking a politically volatile, legally sketchy notion called “ancestral” usage.
- The Coalition advocated pre-emption of no less than 18 established federal and state land use planning efforts, including a memorandum of understanding between San Juan County and the Navajo Nation.
- The 1.9 million-acre parcel that is now the monument was apparently arbitrarily determined and contains vast, intermingled and un-inventoried in-holdings of private lands, water-right diversion points, state tax generating lands, pre-existing rights-of-way, and patented properties.
The Antiquities Act requires land within a monument boundary to be owned or controlled by the United States. Was that condition met to the satisfaction of land owners, ranchers legally entitled to graze their animals within the monument and water-right holders? The old saw that supposedly came from Mark Twain – “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting” – hits close to home in Blanding and Monticello. Almost the entire water supply of those two towns now lies within Bears Ears National Monument.
- The proposal by the Coalition did not contain data, scientific information or references that allow local government, property in-holders or Native Americans to replicate how the 1.9 million-acre parcel was concluded to be the smallest possible area – another requirement of the Antiquities Act.
- The basis for the looting and pillaging claim purported by the Coalition – a major justification for the monument and widely and breathlessly reported as fact – has not been substantiated and is contradicted by internal Bureau of Land Management reports.
- The Coalition’s proposal for creation of the monument led to the question of whether the Interior Department has, given the political climate, the wherewithal to operate and maintain a monument of that size and complexity. (The National Park Service has been accumulating a staggering and increasing deferred maintenance backlog for years. In 2014, NPS reported an ongoing national backlog of deferred maintenance of over $11 billion, including $278,094,606 for Utah alone.)
The environmental group Grand Canyon Trust, in a blog post commemorating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s 20th birthday, said the monument’s funding in 2016 is a third of what it was a decade ago, and a once-robust staff of 17 scientists has declined to one.
- James Perkins, sheriff of Garfield County, echoed those sentiments based on his on-the-ground experience after President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
His county has received “little if any” assistance from the federal government to deal with a wide range of problems he believes are directly connected to the monument. Those problems go beyond stretching the law enforcement resources of a county the size of Connecticut with only 5,000 permanent, tax-paying residents (Perkins’ job requires him to ensure the safety of the tens of thousands of tourists now lured to one of the most secluded parts of the continental United States by state, national and international marketing). They include increases in alcohol and drug use, domestic violence and juvenile delinquency because, he says, of an economic shift from natural resource-based activities to “one-dimensional” tourism.
(Designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante as a national monument locked up resources that diggers and drillers could’ve theoretically tapped, but its impact on an extraction-based economy likely has been minimal. Worldwide demand for fossil fuels has decreased significantly over the past few years. The bust could be permanent.)
“The tourist dollars do not raise families,” he says. Tourism jobs pay lower, seasonal wages. “They often bring individuals into our area who have no long-term commitment to our morals, values and safety,” he wrote in a letter last year to Kendall Laws, San Juan County attorney.
- The sheriff of San Juan County raised similar concerns related to first-responder access and safety of visitors to the vast, rural and extremely rugged and dangerous terrain that is now Bears Ears National Monument. “It is clear to me that (inevitable) closure of legitimate access routes will not only inhibit search and rescue activities, but it will also reduce my department’s ability to levy response actions to private property and many other easily foreseeable scenarios,” wrote Rick Eldredge.
Several of these concerns have been at least vaguely addressed in President Obama’s monument proclamation. However, many details are still to be worked out. Overriding policy that interprets the proclamation and day-to-day monument management will now be a Trumpian chore within a Trumpian Interior Department unless the monument dies in a Trumpian fit of pique then litigated for years.
The devil is in the details. President Trump is nothing if not devilish.
Despite what you might’ve read, I believe most residents of San Juan County are not racists, yahoos or Cliven Bundy types (although there are more than a few crawling around out in the desert). Many hold the land sacred, as did their ancestors. They’re proud of the role they’ve played to keep it virtually pristine.
Although it’s hard to penetrate the rhetorical fog created by multimillion-dollar media campaigns of drillers, diggers and cutters and their political sycophants and self-styled progressives, I believe residents of southeast Utah see and fear the same train as those Blackfeet elders in Montana.
This time, however, the train is fueled not only by barons, tycoons and multinational corporations responsible for an Old West littered with ghost towns and Superfund cleanup sites but also by glam, for-profit marketing savvy and nonprofit wealth. Movie star Redford wants the monument. Clothing seller Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia, movie star and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation and other philanthropic groups are funding marketing and an effective, below-the-radar political campaign. Monument supporters cut a $1.5 million check just after the Bears Ears region was designated a monument in order to establish the Bears Ears Community Engagement Fund, according to the Deseret News. Ka-ching!
Abbey would probably want to blow Redford, Chouinard and DiCaprio’s train to smithereens just after he set Hayduke and “Seldom Seen” loose on Glen Canyon Dam. He’d be cast as a villain nowadays, or maybe some kind of post-modern noir anti-hero of a Coen brothers film.
And that most destructive animal? Look inside the box nailed to the office wall of former longtime Missoulian editorial writer and pioneering environmental journalist Reynolds. The person in the mirrored image might actually believe that wearing a Patagonia 3-in-1 River Salt Jacket ($589) will help save the world.
(Bill Keshlear is a graduate of the University of Montana. He lives in Salt Lake City.)