In October of last year, a nearly complete fossil of a Teratophoneus, a cousin of the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex, was airlifted out of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument right here in southern Utah. Treasure troves of fossils and numerous new species have been unearthed in this crown jewel of our public lands that advance our understanding of time historic.
Land producing such discoveries surely merits our protection, but as you read this, those protections are being stripped away by those who will profit the most.
I am running for the United States Congress to unseat Rep. Chris Stewart, one of the architects of destruction of our national monuments, including Grand Staircase Escalante, which is situated fully inside this congressional district. Stewart worked with President Trump and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to significantly diminish the size of both Grand Staircase and Bears Ears National Monuments. Stewart is also advancing legislation to create a national park in part of Grand Staircase as a bait-and-switch to codify the rollback of the monument and undercut the legal challenges of the reductions. He proceeds with this unpopular decision despite very little input from local community and business leaders.
It is devastating what a small minority of legislators, both at the federal and state level, would do to open our treasured Utah canyons and cliffs to oil, gas and mining. These are not Utah’s lands alone — they are American lands. Millions of Americans and travelers from abroad visit these lands to enjoy the pristine beauty of Utah found nowhere else in the world.
Unsurprisingly, the state representative who has been most vocal in his support of diminishing our freedom to enjoy our public lands also stands to financially benefit from shrinking our national monuments. Until recently, Utah State House Representative Mike Noel, R-Kanab, did not disclose that he owns 40 acres of land within the old borders of Grand Staircase, as well as hundreds of acres of farmland adjacent to the monument, with a total worth of $1.2 million. He vehemently advocated for shrinking our national monuments while choosing not to disclose his conflict of interest. Now he retires from the Utah House to reap the benefits he has sown.
This moral failing aside, these monuments not only provide paleontological wonders but also bring stable and sustainable tourism dollars and jobs to our rural communities. Business leaders in our rural communities tell me that they are devastated by the reductions to the monuments and worry about the future of their small businesses. Indeed, the rollbacks seems particularly backwards when considering the impact of the outdoor recreation industry. In a preliminary report, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that outdoor recreation and industry, including national park visits, hunting and festivals, among countless other activities, contributed $374 billion in 2016, or 2 percent of the nation’s GDP. The oil, gas, and mining industry, on the other hand, contributes only $260 billion annually, 30 percent less than recreation.
I am a first-time candidate. Unlike the incumbent of the 2nd Congressional District, I’m not funded by extractive industries, nor have I worked for their interests as he has. I do not stand to gain financially from the sell-off of our lands, and I do not believe that our shared American heritage of these public and wild spaces should be sold off to serve the interests of the few. I’d like to say my concern for our public lands is driven by some altruistic commitment to future generations, but the immediacy of the devastation is one that we collectively share. Our stewardship of these lands is being leased as you read. I stand with the majority of Utahns and Westerners in support of the original boundaries of these magnificent monuments.
Returning to our bones, the name of the Teratophenous dinosaur means “monstrous murderer.” Perhaps Utah’s federal and state legislators are taking a page from this dinosaur’s playbook as they seek to rend our public lands and render opposition to their special interests moot.The dramatic and breathtaking nature of these lands is only matched by the audacity of these lawmakers seemingly concerned with only two questions as old as the red dirt of Utah’s desert: “Can I get away with it?” And, “Will I make money?” We already know they are profiting off the reduced and redrawn boundaries of our lands. One question stands: Will we let them get away with it?
Shireen Ghorbani is a Democrat running for U.S. Congress in Utah’s 2nd District.