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Op-ed: Long after the politics have faded, we will want a protected Bears Ears

First Published      Last Updated Jun 21 2016 07:52 pm

I've watched the public lands publicity tour that Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gov. Gary Herbert have embarked upon, and it's giving me whiplash. In practically alternating breaths, our public officials denounce national monuments, praise national parks, ridicule the feds and then take credit for federal government's work on preserving Utah public lands.

As a citizen who cherishes America's public lands, this incoherent, tone-deaf messaging frustrates me. But as a student of history, it utterly confounds me. Don't our politicians understand how history will view them?

Hatch recently embarked on a paradoxical National Park Service Centennial celebration, with visits to Arches and Zion national parks. Herbert, for his part, invited President Obama to come tour Utah's national parks to see that Utah has been "very responsible with what we've done and how we've developed our natural resources."




Funnily enough, both Arches and Zion (and indeed four out of five of Utah's national parks) were created using the Antiquities Act, the president's authority to protect special places — the same authority a coalition of tribes are now urging President Obama to use to protect the Bears Ears, and which Hatch, Herbert and Utah's other politicians shrilly denounce. Apparently past monuments are good; future monuments are bad.

With Arches and Zion before, as with Bears Ears today, Utah's national parks were met with strident fearmongering at their creation. But, inevitably, future generations saw the wisdom of safeguarding them. Our politicians can't take credit for our existing national parks, or for being "very responsible," as Herbert claimed, while blocking future conservation at every turn. Whatever good these parks have achieved has been exactly because the United States, rather than the state of Utah (motto: "Industry"), is managing them.

Herbert and Hatch are not the ideological heirs to the people who saw the innate value of our country's public land and sought their protection. No, they are heirs to folks like former Utah Gov. George Clyde, who, with regard to the great hoodoos of what would become the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, remarked to a reporter, "You see, Utah is a mining state, and we may need these for building stone."

History repeats itself, but this time it is also being made.

The Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute have taken the momentous step of requesting a national monument for 1.9-million acre landscape known as the Bears Ears, because they see the region, abounding with artifacts left by their ancestors, as central to their cultural history. But looters erode more of that history every day. Thousands of years of history are dismantled, one pot stolen, one petroglyph vandalized, one grave robbed at a time. Stopping such destruction of antiquities is exactly why the act was created at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt in the first place.

The monument is long overdue. As far back as the administration of another President Roosevelt — Franklin Delano — the region was part of a monument Roosevelt's Interior Secretary Harold Ickes dreamed of in southern Utah called "Escalante." But history got in the way, in the form of World War II. Ickes never got to make his grand declaration, but parts of his vision, Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, were protected piecemeal through the Antiquities Act.

The moment is ripe for protecting the final piece: the Bears Ears. Let's hope that 100 years from now, Utah politicians will be celebrating the prescient protection of Bears Ears the way they do Arches and Zion today, and that the anti-conservation attitudes of their shortsighted forebears will finally be history.

Samantha Hawkins is a native Utahn, avid outdoor adventurer and a recently graduated student from Brigham Young University.

 

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