President Trump visited Utah for four hours last week to rob protections from more than 2 million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. For those of us who love these places, the illegal act was made more bitter because it was delivered with a dose of preposterous nonsense.
As he slashed two magnificent national monuments into bite-size pieces for digestion by the oil and gas, coal and uranium companies, Trump announced that, “Our precious national treasures must be protected, and they, from now on, will be protected.” On demolishing the Bears Ears Monument, whose protections Native Americans have sought for a generation, he benevolently said that he was giving them back their “rightful voice over the sacred land.”
One suspects that, beyond repaying a political favor to Sen. Orrin Hatch, the president scarcely knew why he was in Salt Lake. Trying to talk sense to him is truly howling at the moon.
I am far more interested in starting a conversation about why this happened in Utah and nowhere else. After all, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was tasked with reviewing 27 national monuments created by three presidents, and the only ones he teed up for presidential destruction so far are in Utah. Underscoring the focus on Utah, the very next day Zinke put out a press release saying he had heard the American people and they want their lands protected. He then recommended establishing three new monuments, including one in his home state of Montana!
Of course, Hatch led the charge here. His support of candidate Trump in 2016 helped secure the nomination for him, giving Hatch a magic wish from the president. The voters in a state that is vastly dependent on its spectacular public lands ought to ask him why he chose to use his wish to ruin two of our great treasures. Couldn’t he think of something else that might have provided greater benefit to Utah?
New Utah Rep. John Curtis inadvertently admitted the illegality of the president’s action when he immediately introduced legislation to codify Trump’s minuscule version of Bears Ears. Rep. Chris Stewart then did the same for the gutted Grand Staircase-Escalante, saying, without intending irony, that we should not have each new president changing designations. If this is what they mean by a transparent public process to replace the Antiquities Act, then I’ll take my chances with the many years of debate that preceded President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears.
In most contexts, Utah’s leaders and businesses work tirelessly to normalize our state to the rest of the country. We are not an odd theocracy, they say, we are Welfare Square helping the less fortunate, we are the Winter Olympics, we are the Mighty Five national parks, we are Mitt Romney running for president. But, if we want to seem normal, then we should pay attention to what Zinke learned from the millions of public comments on national monuments: More than 99 percent of Americans who spoke out told him they want the monuments protected. When Utah’s politicians claim that the federal land is rightfully ours and only local people should have a say in the management of our national commons, we brand ourselves as incorrigible weirdos once again.
Further, I’d like to ask all those who are basking in Trump’s action what their vision for our country is? You’ve had your victory this week based on endless misrepresentations and dangerous separation of people into those who matter and those who do not. You cheered for a president who obviously couldn’t find either monument on a map and who couldn’t care less, because he did your bidding this time.
What will you do when you are no longer convenient or necessary to the schemes of our mercurial, budding autocrat? How will you respond when he doesn’t feel like obeying the laws or the parts of the Constitution you cherish? What will you say when he tweets vile hatred about your race or religion? If you support him in his world where there is no objective truth, then there is nothing left to assure you that everything you love won’t someday be tossed on the bonfire of his ego and narcissism. By then, it will be far too late.
Bill Hedden is the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust and a former councilman for Grand County. He lives in Castle Valley.