In a recent op-ed for The Salt Lake Tribune, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman lauded Sen. Mike Lee for his work toward limiting conservation in the state of Utah. As a candidate for the state Legislature who, like Lyman, is hoping to serve as a voice for rural Utah, I cannot disagree with him more.
The passage of the PURE Act would create more barriers to Utah citizens who believe in protecting cultural resources. It would strip away Utahn’s ability to appeal to the executive branch on matters of public lands, making action especially difficult when their representatives refuse to listen. The PURE Act has only one purpose — to disenfranchise conservationists in Utah.
Let’s put the Antiquities Act in context. In the late 19th century, scientists had become increasingly concerned over looting at historic and cultural sites throughout the four corners region. Over the course of more than two decades, a rush on cultural sites had swept through the Southwest like miners panning for gold. Loads of artifacts were stolen from places like Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Palatki and countless others — stripped of their history by anyone with a shovel, simply because there was no law on the books to stop them.
At the turn of the century, the American Association for the Advancement of Science began promoting a bill for the protection of these sites — citing the efforts of countries like Greece, Egypt and Turkey to preserve their significant cultural resources. By 1906, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt had signed the Antiquities Act into law, which gave him unilateral authority to protect some of our most treasured landscapes — Devils Tower, Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon, Petrified Forest, Natural Bridges, Mount Olympus — all preserved under the new law.
It’s that unilateral part that leaves our representatives uneasy. But their problem is twofold. First, Congress has had more than a century to repeal the Antiquities Act and there is little interest to do so nationally. Second, looting on federal land hasn’t stopped. The BLM recovered looted artifacts in San Juan County as recently as 2009.
Put it all in context. Consider the history of gerrymandering in San Juan County that a federal court overturned last year. Consider the most recent example of a San Juan County clerk removing Willie Grayeyes from the ballot in an action that appears to be politically motivated. Consider that Bears Ears National Monument was the first in history lobbied for by a coalition of Native American tribes with ancestral ties to the region, and consider that their voices fell on disinterested ears when they initially tried to work through Congress. Tyranny of the majority, one supposes.
Lee frames his public lands position with the convenient trope of federal overreach, but he only seems to mind when land withdrawals are for conservation. I’ve never heard Lee complain about the Mineral Leasing Act. Another Utahn, Reed Smoot, a Republican senator and a member of the LDS church Quorum of the Twelve, helped write that law. But Smoot was actually a friend to conservationists, and he understood that public lands are an asset to the middle class. Smoot played a role in creating the National Park Service, he was against the construction of the Hetch-Hetchy dam, and surprise, he voted for the Antiquities Act.
If Lyman is elected to the Legislature, he says he plans to play a decisive role in the future of public lands in our state. Well so do I — but I’ll follow the lead of Utahns who’ve come before us and work to protect our heritage rather than destroy it.
Tim Glenn is a historian and writer living in Green River, Utah. He is the Democratic candidate for House District 69.