“Perhaps I am an idealist, but I hope we can come together and work in good faith, recognizing that we all want these lands to remain public, and we all want to protect their history, archaeology and unique nature. I think when we ascribe good motives to each other, we’ll be more likely to have a productive conversation and more likely to reach an optimal solution for the use of our public lands that everyone can live with.”
— Gov. Gary Herbert, speaking on Rep. John Curtis’s bill to wipe away Bears Ears National Monument.
No, Gov. Herbert, real idealists see the bill for what it is, legislation that would divide and disenfranchise Native Americans. Whatever good motives were behind its creation, the result is neither productive nor optimal.
Bears Ears National Monument is the product of a unique alliance of five Indian nations that trace their ancestry to the sacred Bears Ears buttes and their surrounding lands. Those nations gave the governor and Utah’s congressional delegation every opportunity to embrace their desires and work through a legislative process, but Utah’s leaders flatly refused, thereby pushing the tribes toward President Obama and the Antiquities Act.
And, despite a massive disinformation campaign to the contrary, Obama’s proclamation did nothing to increase federal land ownership or control. It only recognized the special nature of that land. It specifically spelled out that multiple uses like grazing should still be allowed. There was no economic opportunity prevented by the monument’s creation, just as there is none created if the courts allow it to die.
The opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument doesn’t have to do with money. It has to do with race.
And Curtis, full of the usual freshman promises of doing things differently, fell right in line. His bill to codify President Trump’s dismantling of Bears Ears monument was unveiled barely three weeks after he took office and at the same time Trump released his proclamation. Curtis pledged to reach across all stakeholders, but he apparently never met with a single tribal official before introducing a bill that says only that Utah Indians should be involved in managing the area.
That has been at the heart of the disconnect over the Bears Ears. Herbert, Curtis and others have legitimate frustrations over federal land management, but so do the tribes. They could have gotten more done by joining them. But when talk of the monument got serious, these independent, sovereign nations were branded as pawns of environmentalists, as if they were incapable of mounting the effort by themselves. The political strategy of putting state sovereignty over tribal sovereignty has fostered division among individual tribe members in the state.
This from a state that was one of last in the nation to grant Indians the right to vote. That was in 1957. There were Utah Indians who fought in World War II but couldn’t vote when they came home.
The governor spoke of the bill as an opportunity to reset the debate. We are getting a reset, but it’s not the one he wants.
First there is the financial reset. Regardless of what happens with the lawsuits over Bears Ears or Curtis’ bill, the misreading of Bears Ears has already cost Utah its largest convention and wounded a growing manufacturing sector that fed off that convention. There is nothing in Trump’s proclamation or Curtis’ bill that will come close to replacing the annual loss from the exit of Outdoor Retailer.
It’s also a steep public relations challenge to erase Bears Ears Monument from public awareness as news stories keep it alive. A check of Google shows searches for “Bears Ears” far outpace “Shash Jaa” or “Indian Creek,” the names given the two smaller monuments in Trump’s proclamation and Curtis’ bill. Ask yourselves, “What would a German tourist google?”
But it’s the reset on San Juan County political power that could be the real zinger. Utah leaders have built their anti-Bears Ears argument on the belief that the locals don’t want it. Now a federal court has mandated a redistricting that erases the gerrymandering that ensured white majorities on the county commission and school board despite an Indian majority in the county. Is it any wonder why that ruling white majority rejects federal authority?
Work in good faith? Yes, that’s still possible, but not until Utah recognizes its troubled history with the people whose ancestors were here long before the pioneers. We’re hardly alone in the world in needing a fuller, deeper respect for indigenous cultures, and Bears Ears is an opportunity with no downside.
Let the reset begin at home.