The Dilemma of Simplification: Bears Ears and CNN

A long time ago, in the context of Colorado Roadless, I raised the question of whether some natural resource/public lands issues are simply too complex for the news media to tell the story. When that happens (“it’s too complex”), it seems like the natural reaction is to find a simpler story.. usually good guy vs. bad guys. If we believe these stories, though, and trust “the media”, we naturally end up thinking that there are a lot of “bad” people out there, (including people in the industries that keep our buildings heated and cooled, and provide the electrons that power the internet) and get more worried/despairing/angry about the state of the world today.

Kevin Franck sent this by Jim Stiles in the Canyon Country Zephyr.

More than three years have passed since the idea of a “Bears Ears National Monument” was first introduced to the general public. One of the most far-reaching and expensive coast-to-coast marketing campaigns ever promoted by the powerful outdoor industry and their allies in the mainstream environmental community clearly contributed to the decision by President Obama to create the monument in the last days of his administration. Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell, had previously served as CEO of REI, Inc, one of the largest outdoor retailers in the world.

(Jewell’s predecessor, Ken Salazar, promised Utahns in 2011 that monument designation was not being considered by the Obama administration.)

Those two forces came together to sell an agenda to the American Public and the mainstream media, from the national level to the local, often became a willing mouthpiece for that agenda. It became an un-debated, unchallenged “fact” that only monument status could save the area from rampant and imminent destruction from the energy industry and archaeological looters.

I don’t claim to be knowledgeable on many issues, and I try to limit my participation to stories that I know enough to comment on. But I have lived in southeast Utah for more than 40 years, I have been intimately connected to the vast wild country in San Juan County and to the two buttes known as “the Bears Ears” for even longer. I was once a strong proponent of the environmental lobby in Utah and many years ago even served on the board of directors of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. But in the past 20 years, environmentalists have forged alliances with the outdoor industry and turned a blind eye to the impacts their partnerships were creating.

In 2018, misinformation about southeast Utah, the monument and the people has been a particular source of frustration. In an effort to set the record straight, this publication has written and posted more than 50,000 words on the subject of Bears Ears National Monument. It’s been a Quixotic effort— not once has a major media source been able to contradict a single word, but the truth is, they won’t even try.

I think the whole piece is worth reading because it shows how difficult it would be (even in an 8 minute video segment) to even describe some of the complexity of the issue. I also wonder whether the same people who think it’s a bad idea for a former uranium/coal/oil and gas lobbyist to head the EPA, think that it was fine for a CEO of a regulated industry (recreation) to serve at the helm of Interior.

18 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Simplification: Bears Ears and CNN”

  1. It really helps in explaining complex issues to the public when writers actually explain the issues they are writing about. This applies to you too. If you want to make bizarre claims along the lines of “we naturally end up thinking that there are a lot of “bad” people out there, including people in the industries that keep our buildings heated and cooled, and provide the electrons that power the internet” you won’t succeed in clarifying anything if you don’t explain why folks who profiteer by contributing to greenhouse gas production are not “bad” in the context of Bears Ears when that’s precisely why folks are so outraged about the back-tracking on the Monument designation. If your point was that no industry reps should be at the helm of the agencies that regulate them then that’s a good point to raise and I wholeheartedly agree. Most folks appreciate that having a fox guarding their hen house is a no no. Quite simple really.

    • Michael, my claims are not bizarre. I hear you saying that there are two things wrong with the oil and gas folks (as you know, uranium does not contribute to GHG production according to EIA in 2017 20% of low carbon energy was nuclear 6.3% wind and 1.3 solar, so maybe nuclear is not so bad. One is that they contribute to GHG production and the other is that they make profits.

      Well, our recreation manufacturers use GHG produced energy and make profits also.. so it can’t be the profit, it must be the production compared to the use??? So people who extract minerals for us to use are bad, and we who use them continue to be good? Very confusing to me.

    • “…this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience….To the conservation movement, it is only production that causes environmental degradation; the consumption that supports the production is rarely acknowledged to be at fault. The ideal of the run-of-the-mill conservationist is to impose restraints upon production without limiting consumption or burdening the consciences of consumers.”

      Wendell Berry

  2. I am a native Utahn, and Stiles is a true journalism legend in the west. I think his story is spot on, and we should give equal scrutiny to industrial type recreation impacts as we do the extractive industries. The politics of the Antiquities Act have watered down congressional intent, which sustains big money enviro groups in their endless quest for more protection. Just read some of Obama’s proclamations. They are almost laughable in their use of vague and sweeping language to define what are supposed to be scientifically special “objects”, not “landscapes”. The idea that a Monument name will address the endless challenges of managing public lands for public uses, or bring more sustained resources, is not true in my experience. But a Monument can and has increased visitation and corresponding impacts, both beneficial and adverse.

  3. I can’t say that Sally Jewell was not biased because she had headed REI. But in what way is or was REI or any other part of the outdoor gear industry “regulated” is the commonly accepted meaning of the term? An self-interested party? Yes, maybe so. Personally I found those Patagonia clips very convincing. Is one of the counter arguments that geared-up outdoor enthusiasts are running amok in wild areas creating a lot of environmental damage, while the environmental community is turning a blind eye because they’re in bed with the outdoor industry?

    • Outfitter guides, river runner businesses, and so on are required to get permits and follow NEPA. Streamlining NEPA and permitting is one of the goals of the OIA. (I’m not saying anything bad about this, for heaven’s sake, they’re an industry association, not a philanthropic foundation.
      When I’ve spoken to the folks there, their argument seems to be that only “extractive” industries really need to do NEPA. And non-commercial recreationists are also regulated.. e.g. “no mountain bikes here,” “closed to hiking due to seasonal restrictions and all that.”

      I know that there are many environmental groups that do many different things, and so this is not a broad brush. I don’t know why exactly some policy issues with environmental effects (say legalizing marijuana) do not draw their attention and extensive media campaigns, while others (say Colorado Roadless) do.

  4. I didn’t see a link to the Canyon Country Zephyr article so I figured I’d post one, as you say, the whole thing is worth a read.
    I pretty much whole heartedly agree with Stiles. Living for a while in Moab in the late 80s it was blatantly obvious what industry was likely to be the most damaging, and so it has come to pass.

  5. It’s misleading for Jim to say uranium is dead and that Daneros has been shut down for years while it’s owner is prepping it to resume operations in the coming years.

    • George, thanks for bringing this up. It seems to me that again “it is more complicated than that”. If we go by this (ttps:// article in the Salt Lake Tribune, it looks like Energy Fuels would like to reopen the Daneros mine and the BLM did an EA for moving from 4 acres to 48 acres of ground disturbance.

      “The Daneros Mine began operating in 2009 and yielded 121,000 tons of ore before going on standby three years later after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The tiny mine is served by two decline portals and two ventilating shafts, with surface impacts limited to 4.5 acres.

      The BLM’s recent decision expands that to 46 acres, with eight new ventilation holes and new facilities at its two portals. Production would increase from 100,000 tons to 500,000 tons over 20 years. In 15 daily trips, ore would be trucked over Cedar Mesa and through the newly named Shash Jaa Unit of the reduced Bears Ears National Monument to the White Mesa mill.”

      But the obstacle seems to be price:

      “Unless prices rebound above $50 a pound, however, it is unlikely Energy Fuels will be able to mine uranium at Daneros.

      “We are not there right now. The world is oversupplied with uranium, but that situation is resolving,” Moore said.

      The nation’s 100 nuclear power plants consume about 45 million pounds of uranium a year, but only about 6 percent of that demand is met from domestic sources. While uranium deposits abound on lands that were formerly inside the Bears Ears monument, Energy Fuels has no intention of mining there, Moore said.”

      I don’t think we know whether nuclear will come back (here or elsewhere in the world) as folks look for low carbon fuel sources. It looks like they are ready to reopen it if economic conditions permit. But it is not within the Obama Bears Ears designation which I think was the main point Stiles was making.

  6. “I also wonder whether the same people who think it’s a bad idea for a former uranium/coal/oil and gas lobbyist to head the EPA, think that it was fine for a CEO of a regulated industry (recreation) to serve at the helm of Interior.”

    The USDI mission is more multiple-use than EPA:
    “The Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities.”

    But there is still a need for ethics restrictions and watchdogs to minimize self-dealing (even for supposedly non-affiliated appointees – like Zinke).

  7. FWIW: A December 2012 blast from the past from this blog….

    Massive Coalition Calls on President Obama to Nominate Rep. Raúl Grijalva as Interior Secretary (LINK)

    In a letter sent today, a broad coalition of 238 conservation, Hispanic, recreation, animal welfare, religious, labor, youth, business and women’s groups urged President Barack Obama to nominate Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) as the next interior secretary when that position opens. Grijalva is currently ranking member of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and a leading Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

    • Matthew, you raise an interesting point. Grijalva had the support of many national groups.. since then he started the infamous witch hunt of professors, including one of Colorado’s own. Roger Pielke, Jr. in 2015.

      I actually think the background of being a director of a state DNR where you have to listen to both sides and you are in the weeds of controversies (dealing with things, not ideas about things), would be the best background. Like Ken Salazar, for example.

  8. I think the original point of this post had something to do with the different narratives that can be spun on any story. Here’s another one on Bears Ears that I hadn’t seen before. Rather than being driven by the recreation industry, it was conceived and promoted by five Native American tribes. So while it is interesting what individual tribal members may think (as presented by CNN), that part of the story seems to be a lot deeper.

    “Bears Ears, dense in Native artifacts, is just the sort of site that John F. Lacey had in mind when he ushered the Antiquities Act through Congress. Yet even though Obama’s declaration was firmly grounded in the original ideals of the law, the Bears Ears designation was also unique and historic. That is because there was one important difference between Bears Ears and all the other national monuments that had come before it. It was—and, even though contested, remains—the first national monument to grow out of the thinking, study, support, and political power of Native American nations.”

    “Over the next hour, Lopez-Whiteskunk gave me a brief history of the creation of Bears Ears. It is a story that has been obscured as the legal battle over the land escalates. The story began when a Navajo group, Utah Diné Bikéyah (“people’s sacred lands”), began culturally mapping the Bears Ears area, a section of southeast Utah that is sparsely inhabited by people but full of cultural and religious significance for Native Americans. Opponents of the Bears Ears designation sometimes portray it as a sudden decision by Obama. But in fact its roots are Diné Bikéyah’s assiduous collection of data on sensitive cultural-historical areas in the region, which contains over 100,000 Native American sites.
    Once the initial work was done, the Navajo organization invited other tribes to join in the creation of a proposal for a national monument.”

    “It seemed to me that Bears Ears National Monument, as originally conceived by Diné Bikéyah and others, was a better idea. Something akin to a Native American attitude toward the land, and its sacredness, had always been vaguely floating around in the minds of those who early on fought to preserve this country’s public lands, even if their behavior when it came to actual Native Americans didn’t reflect this. But until Bears Ears, Indigenous thinking played little part in the creation of our national monuments. Listening to Lopez-Whiteskunk describe her coalition’s use of the Antiquities Act, I began to see that what had evolved in the creation of Bears Ears was not just inspiring; it was original.”

    On the question of how and why to reduce the size of the national monuments? “Despite Zinke’s denials, it is now clear that the uranium industry lobbied hard to have Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante reduced. Publicly released Interior Department emails also show that the Bears Ears map was redrawn with potential oil and gas reserves in mind, and that a central motivation for the reduction of Grand Staircase–Escalante was the desire to get at coal reserves.”

    • My alarm bells went off at the idea of Utah Dine Bikeyah “culturally mapping the Bears Ears area” and their “assiduous collection of data on sensitive cultural-historical areas in the region, which contains over 100,000 Native American sites.” Does that really sound like something the natives would conceive of, execute, or have the spare change to do? Frankly, that sounds to me like something an organization like, say, the Grand Canyon Trust would do, “in conjunction with” Utah Dine Bikeyah.

      Follow the money. The natives were willing participants, and likely saw opportunities for using the white man while being used themselves, but Bears Ears was not a unilateral native-driven effort:

      • My other question would be that mapping sites does not automatically generate a desire for National Monument status. It might also prioritize sites for Native American management (through some mechanism) or for the BLM to prioritize law enforcement, or for Foundations to fund drones to patrol and capture license plate data to turn over to BLM law enforcement, or…
        As we’ve pointed out before, there is a risk that Monumentizing brings more people and more vandalism.

    • We have no evidence to support the claim that “the uranium industry lobbied hard” as we’ve discussed before, we have a letter with one sentence and a closed meeting that no one did an audiorecording of. We have seen no applications come forward, halfway through the Trump that may indicate that the industry folks were telling the truth. Given that actually doing anything would be planned and litigated and probably have a ten year time horizon.

      I’m probably the only person among the contributors that has actually worked on reviewing and litigation around above ground and below ground coal mines. I can just tell you that it’s a long, long, long trail to expand ongoing mines, let alone open a new one in a politically contentious area, with many electric plants converting to natural gas or renewables, and judges asking for estimates of the environmental impacts of the burning of coal (who will burn it? where? would they burn coal from somewhere else instead if this coal weren’t available? What is the impact of how many tons on climate change anyway? How can we predict any impacts to the planet as a whole? Use a model (I am not making this up).. no, use another model, and so on.

      The fears just don’t match the reality of how things are done, and how long it takes and how many administrations may happen by then with their own inclinations. All the way along, I haven’t thought the media campaign has not really been about Bears Ears.. someone decided to (1) finalize it AFTER the election and (2) ride that issue hard for the next two years at least, with a massive media campaign. Political strategists are much smarter than I, and I wonder if we can detect their fingerprints in all this?

      • Per Tommy Beaudreau, then chief of staff for Sally Jewel, they did it despite Trump’s election knowing full well of the negative implications for the resources due to monument publicity and subsequent reversal of the designation. Why? To have the ultimate legal battle over use of the Antiquities Act play out in court.

        This video is of a panel discussion at Johns Hopkins including Beaudreau. He starts at around 0:45:00 and the critical 6 minutes of his discussion begins at about 0:59:00. Many thanks to Bill Keshlear in the most recent issue of the Canyon Country Zephyr for this link.


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