To listen to Utah’s top Republican office-holders, one might think that President Joe Biden’s move to restore two national monuments in Utah to their full and proper boundaries has ended any possibility that those lands might be properly respected and managed going forward.
Actually, the opposite is true.
By putting Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument back the way they were before President Donald Trump so callously slashed them by more than half, Biden has simply reset the clock to where it was four years ago.
Now is the time for Utah’s congressional delegation, its executive branch, its Legislature and local officials to start making up for lost time. To invite the kind of constructive dialog that wasn’t possible under an administration that was actively hostile to the concept of public lands, and thus destructive of everything Utah should be working toward.
Utah is a public lands state. Most of it belongs — is owned, by law and by right — by the people of the United States. Instead of constantly pouting and throwing tantrums over that inalterable fact, our state’s elective leadership should be all about the proper care of all those acres, now and for all time, in ways that are respectful of the land, of its original occupants, and of sustainable economic opportunities for those who live here now and in the future.
For elected officials in Utah to consistently oppose the idea of protection for public lands is like congressmen from Michigan undercutting the auto industry or senators from Florida dissing orange juice.
What’s needed now is a full-court press by Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Reps. John Curtis, Burgess Owens, Chris Stewart and Blake Moore. Time for them to break out every tool in the congressional kit, lobbying, cajoling, pleading, shaming, log-rolling, publicly campaigning and privately back-scratching, for the federal funds and other support needed to make those national monuments, and all federal land within the borders of Utah, something spectacular we can be proud to show the world.
None of that will happen if the congressional delegation continually denies the fact of federal ownership, or if Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes pick a fight by pursuing frivolous and destructive lawsuits opposed to Biden’s action and the very existence of both monuments.
The argument made by our Republican leaders, that “Utah” opposes Biden’s action, as if Utah were a monolithic entity, is simply false. Some Utahns do oppose it. A great many others — not only many Native Americans but also the elected officials who lead Grand and San Juan counties — very much do not.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument existed for 21 years before the Trump wrecking ball came along. Its origin was indeed tainted by the fact that President Bill Clinton, seeking to burnish his environmentalist credentials in his 1996 reelection campaign, announced the designation with no warning or consultation with Utah officials.
But in the years since, the political and economic landscape adapted and an ecosystem of enterprises devoted to hospitality and adventure tourism evolved to take advantage of the monument. Actions taken by Congress and the Utah Legislature to swap out certain lands basically cemented the designation years ago. Downsizing that monument after so many years made no sense at all.
Bears Ears, on the other hand, was created only in the closing days of the Barack Obama administration. It came after years of effort on the part of five Native American nations to mark and preserve their ancestral sacred landscapes. Trump’s move to undo that accomplishment stank of racism, as did the openly expressed glee of Utah’s political class when Trump came to Salt Lake City to sign his despicable — and, quite possibly, illegal — declaration.
What wasn’t done, in large part because too few elected officials in Utah thought it worth the bother, was the creation and implementation of a real management plan for Bears Ears, something that put Native concerns and knowledge at the top of the list, backed up by federal funds and protection efforts.
Now, we can do that. If, that is, Utah officials drop their performative hostility and really get with the program.
One argument raised by Utah Republicans makes sense. It is that it is not good for anyone for national monuments to grow and shrink and grow again at the whim of successive administrations. To put an end to that, we need the kind of final disposition of these lands that only an act of Congress could create. Our delegation’s unwillingness to work toward a realistic plan that respects the land, the tribes and the need for sustainable care of the landscape has been the hold-up there.
Biden’s action has made that a possibility again. If only our elected officials will seize the opportunity.