Commentary: Romney anti-public lands bill showcases politics of division

This Saturday, March 3, 2018, photo shows Mitt Romney during a tour of Arches National Park, near Moab. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

We were hoping Mitt Romney would be different.

Utah’s new U.S. senator seemed willing — almost eager — to stand up for Utah values and challenge the mendacity and immorality of President Donald Trump, as demonstrated in Romney’s takedown of the president written for The Washington Post.

But despite Romney’s exhortations to “inspire and unite” and “eschew the politics of anger and fear,” one of his first official acts was to join arms with Sen. Mike Lee to sponsor a divisive bill that attacks national monuments and public lands.

The bill would exempt Utah from the landmark Antiquities Act. It would all but ensure that no more public land in the state is safe from fossil-fuel extraction, leaving irreplaceable cultural and natural resources unprotected.

It’s identical to one of three bills Lee introduced last year. After that bill went nowhere, Lee had a temper tantrum and blocked a broadly supported public lands package in the waning days of the last Congress.

In a news release announcing the bill’s introduction, Romney and Lee make the same patronizing arguments that Trump and Utah pols made before they staged the largest rollback of protected land in American history, slashing 2 million acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.

They used the same divisive industry talking points, bemoaning “excessive land grabs” and “Washington bureaucrats.”

But they fail to mention the 21 Utah elected officials who support lawsuits to stop Trump’s illegal executive order and restore the monuments’ protections. And they overlook the hundreds of hard-working public servants who live in our communities and help manage public lands and national monuments in Utah.

Romney and Lee don’t seem to care that they’re completely out of step with the majority of their constituents, who support public lands. According to the 2018 Conservation in the West poll, 91 percent of Utah voters visited federally managed public lands last year, and 65 percent said rollbacks of laws that protect land, water and wildlife are a serious problem.

They ignore the fact that the oil and gas, mining and livestock grazing industries already have enormous influence over federal lands and are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Even as companies sit on millions of acres of public lands leases they’re not using, just to prop up their financial books, hundreds of thousands more are being leased for drilling and fracking.

Romney and Lee also shrug off the spectacular gifts that public lands offer every day: clean air and water, peace and quiet, and homes for a diverse and fascinating array of wild plants and animals. Public lands protect Utah’s threatened and endangered species, from a delicate native orchid to the desert tortoise.

And they avoid the fact that many beloved national parks were first protected as national monuments — including Zion, Bryce, Arches and Capitol Reef — each of which had its detractors and doomsayers at the time.

The Antiquities Act has allowed presidents from both parties to bypass congressional inaction, hand-wringing and alarmist rhetoric to permanently protect wildlands, wildlife and irreplaceable cultural elements from special interests driven by short-term profits.

Romney’s effort to exclude Utah from this foundational conservation tool tells us that he doesn’t value public lands or the opinions of most of the people who sent him to Washington, D.C. He’s aligning himself with Lee, an extremist lawmaker who’s repeatedly demonized public lands and in 2018 sponsored three horrible bills to dismantle them.

Romney’s polarizing rhetoric and alliance with Lee show he’s willing to divide and misrepresent, just like the president he publicly called out for lacking character.

Utahns should watch closely to see which Mitt Romney emerges in the coming months: the one who says he values character or the one who demonstrates it.

Ryan Beam

Ryan Beam is a Salt Lake City resident and a public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.

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