A Big Win for Utah’s Rural Communities

December 8, 2017

President Trump won the White House for many reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is that rural Americans are sick and tired of rich coastal elites telling them how to live their lives.

President Trump may not be able to fulfill all of his campaign promises, but he has already delivered for Utah’s rural communities by coming to our state and limiting President Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument and President Clinton’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Make no mistake: President Obama’s Bears Ears monument was a project pushed and funded by wealthy East and West Coast liberals. The Hewlett and Packard foundations, as well as the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, gave tens of millions of dollars to supposedly “grassroots” Native American groups to campaign for a new monument.

But local Native Americans—the people who actually live near Bears Ears and use the land—did not take the money.

“The whole tone of it seems like the tribes are generally being used as pawns for the environmental groups to get what they really want,” Blue Mountain Dine’ Vice President Byron Clarke told the Deseret News. “They are being played. It is somewhat insulting.”

“It seems pretty clear that the federal government over time tends to close down access,” Clarke later told me. “So just as a local user of the land, I have to ask myself what’s wrong with how we are using it right now? We can go hunt now, we can go fishing and cut wood now and it’s pristine.”

Clarke is right. The federal government does restrict access to land where a national monument has been declared. That is the entire point of the Antiquities Act: to preserve cultural treasures on federal public land by restricting access to the land.

That is also why the Antiquities Act requires that monument designations be “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and maintenance of the objects to be protected.”

Neither President Clinton nor President Obama respected that limitation. Instead of responsibly working with local communities to identify just the protections needed to preserve cultural sites in San Juan and Garfield counties, they made million acre designations that were designed to transform the economic life of surrounding residents.

“Creation of jobs for tourism will be a benefit to the community versus those that could be lost by some of the mineral and energy jobs,” Clarke told me. “I think for a lot of Navajos we are skilled people, we have skills other than restaurant workers and gas station attendants. We are engineers. We are heavy equipment operators. We are welders. Those are good jobs rather than the tourism type jobs which tend to be seasonal.”

Ranching families also are hit hard by the restrictions that come with monument designations. After land-use restrictions at the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument kicked in, Garfield County ranchers could no longer bring water in to their cattle. Their ability to fence in water resources and maintain roads was also limited. Many families were forced to signigicantly reduce their herds, sometimes by half.

The corporations pushing for monument land-use restrictions, like Patagonia and REI, claim that the monuments will create tourism jobs for the residents of Garfield and San Juan county. And they are right: the monuments do create tourism jobs.

But at what cost?

Moab resident Jon Kovash warns in the High Country Times that “Tourism also brings sprawling growth, crappy jobs, even-higher rents and home prices, and an increasingly unmanageable crush of visitors and traffic.”

Maybe the rich coastal liberals and their corporate pals are right. Maybe tourism is the answer for economic development in rural America.

But shouldn’t that choice be made by the residents who live there?

Shouldn’t the people who actually live near the land decide how best to use it?

And maybe, just maybe, the same people who used land restrictions in their own cities to create sky-high housing prices and crushing inequality shouldn’t be in the business of telling other people how to use their land.

More needs to be done to protect Utah’s rural communities from future Democratic presidents. We need Congress to give Utah the same Antiquities Act protections that Alaska and Wyoming have.

But until then, President Trump’s monument reductions are a good first step. Utah thanks him.