The good thing about politics in a democracy is that, sometimes, differences can be split, compromises can be reached and mutually beneficial deals can be struck.
The bad thing about politics in a democracy is that, sometimes, differences are never settled, conflicts are never resolved and matters that should have been considered closed get dragged back into the debate and, often, into legal battles that go on forever.
The matter of the Bears Ears National Monument should have been settled last year.
That’s when President Obama, after holding back for years to allow Utah’s political leaders plenty of time to decide among themselves the best way to manage more than a million acres of land that are sacred to Native Americans, stepped in at the last minute to proclaim a special level of protection for the federal territory in southeast Utah.
But, as part of his ego-driven crusade to obliterate all things Obama, President Trump foolishly ordered a ”review” of that and many other monument declarations going back to the Clinton administration.
As that review, headed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wrapped up this past week, word came that the recommendation for Bears Ears would be not just to adjust the boundaries of the monument, but to eviscerate the whole plan by cutting the number of protected acres from 1.35 million acres to, according to a report from The New York Times, a mere 160,000 acres.
It would be hard to see such a move as anything other than a desire to score points with Trump’s political base while humiliating the leaders of five Native American tribes who worked long and hard to win protection for land that not only used to be theirs (like, well, all of America) but also held special historical and spiritual significance.
It is an act of political spite that is unlikely to do any good for anyone.
Indians and other backers of the monument have been insulted. But, given the legal fuzziness of the federal Antiquities Act, those who opposed the designation and who hoped to open the federally owned land to more mining, drilling, grazing and other such potentially destructive activities have not won.
All they have gained is the opportunity to do as the tribes and their allies will do. To lawyer up and move the battle from the political arena to the judicial one.
The consensus of lawyers who don’t work for the state of Utah or for the Trump administration is that presidents do not have the legal authority to dissolve or significantly reduce any national monument once it has been created.
Congress does. But, given the history of inaction on measures proposed by Utah’s own delegation, there is little reason to believe that anything is going to happen on that front.
The plan to so radically shrink Bears Ears will go nowhere except to court, where it is likely to stay for a very long time, indeed. The tribes won’t have what they want. Neither will the drillers, miners and ranchers, or county commissioners who have pipe dreams of taxing all of the above on land that was, is and, by Zinke’s recommendation, will remain federal property.
Leaving the monument designation in place, and working with the tribes and others on the specifics of a management plan for the property, would have been a better deal for all concerned.
Now, it will all be in limbo for a long time to come. Sad.