A Unification Approach to Bears Ears: Let’s Swear Off Political Sharp Sticks in the Eye

Conservation Lands Foundation board member and former Interior Secretary at a meeting in Durango, Colorado. Photo by Steve Lewis, Durango Herald.
Lisa Friedman of the New York Times wrote an interesting article about the top things the new administration could do for the environment.

Most of her nine are about climate change. Of most interest to us, is perhaps one she calls “Restore Wildlife Areas”

According to her, Mr. Biden has pledged to take “immediate steps to reverse the Trump assault on America’s national treasures” including major cuts in 2017 to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments as well as opening parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. He has said on the first day of his administration that he will sign an executive order to conserve 30 percent of US lands and waters by 2030.”

We’ll be continuing to discuss the details of a 30 x 30 goal.

One concept I’ve never heard political writers talk about is what I would call the “sharp stick in the eye” factor, which I think deserves more exploration. Bears Ears was monumentized following the loss of an election. We have heard from the same people that it’s bad for Supreme Court nominees to be picked too close to an election, but the same folks argue that it was fine to Monumentize an area where many elected officials are of the opposing party after an election. It seems to me that these positions are inconsistent, and I’ve found that inconsistent and or illogical positions are often guideposts to decisions that are ultimately political (in the sense of pleasing someone at the expense of others). Anyway, to me that was an intentional sharp stick in the eye. It will be interesting to see if we agree on the SSE (sharp stick) factor. I’d give Bears Ears an 8 on a 1-10 scale.

I don’t think the “uniting” approach would be to “immediately reverse” what the Trump Administration did. That would be just another sharp stick in the eye.. haven’t we had enough of those? What about sitting down again with folks in the area and concerned groups looking at a variety of alternatives without the drama of the Nationally Significant Focus by Some Groups as a Symbol. Certainly the only choice is not “these 2016 lines with these 2016 restrictions”. As Chris Wood said about the 2001 Roadless Rule, “it wasn’t written on stone tablets.”

Despite the fears, we didn’t see any oil and gas nor additional uranium development. Maybe, as we have seen, increasing recreation in the area would be bad for the environment, or people come whether or not it’s a Monument, or people overuse trails and spread Covid to locals. Seems like the last four years have had changes that could be considered in such a discussion.

Mark Squillace, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, tells the story of when he accompanied Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit to affected communities to discuss Grand Staircase-Escalante national Monument. The way his story goes, talking person to person with Babbit may have actually changed minds, or at least reduced the atmosphere of antipathy. (Of course, that’s Mark’s side of the story, but we don’t have another one, so I’ll go with it.)

Here’s my unifying approach based on that:
1. Send the Secretary out there (presence is a great symbol) as part of a public comment period
2. Determine to listen respectfully to the other sides, including elected officials from the other party (!). As the President-elect said, they are not your enemy.
3. Do a deal with the goal of stability.. “can everyone live with this?”

Actually, it sounds a lot like plain old collaboration. It’s also what states have to do regularly, which is why I like former western governors and DNR directors for Interior Secretaries.
It’s interesting to think about why it is that when the stakes are higher than at the State level, it seems like collaboration takes a back seat and “winner takes all” takes over. But internationally, we’d reject that approach in supporting peace processes. Perhaps national politics are some kind of anomaly. Not in a good way.

I ran across this article from only five years ago from the Durango Herald on Babbitt’s then-current activities:

The pushback from the energy production industry is a major obstacle, but Babbitt said he has long held the belief that the two, preservation and industry, can co-exist.

“How many of you know, that there is gas production at the Canyon of the Ancients?” Babbitt asked the crowd of about 30 members and non-members. “The opponent says you’re taking things off the slate of use and production, that the land is just being set aside for weak environmentalists. But (oil and gas) can be managed with minimal impact. It is possible to make them work together.

And one reason the BLM is taking such good care of that place is because they’re looking over their shoulder,” he said. “That’s the model for the entire West, and it began right here in Durango.”

I think by “they” in the last sentence Babbitt meant local people given the context. Also Babbitt talks about BLM’s National Conservation Lands which sounds like it could be an alternative to monumentizing, especially when an Administration starts with enough time for such a process.

14 thoughts on “A Unification Approach to Bears Ears: Let’s Swear Off Political Sharp Sticks in the Eye”

  1. Sharon,
    In looking at the timeline for Bears Ears the decision to create the monument did occur in the closing days of an administration, however much of the work and outreach had been conducted over several years and with several different proposed configurations.

    Could you help me understand your connecting between Supreme Court nomination process of a few months (weeks) to the several years of Bears Ears work?

    • Excellent point and question Leslie. Thanks so much for bringing it up.

      According to this timeline on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition website, the origins for a Bears Ears National Monument go back to 2009 and 2010, which coincide with year #1 and year #2 of President Obama’s 8 years in office.


    • Thanks for your great question! I think this is also relevant to Matthew’s and Jim Furnish’s comments. There are in fact (at least) two competing narratives as to how Bears Ears came about.
      One is the one you see national media and environmental group (and outdoor industry association) press campaigns and one you see with more local journalists such as Amy Donoghue and Jim Stiles.

      Here are some links to their work.
      Amy Joi O’Donoghue on some of the history.
      Here’s one from Jim Stiles that looks into some of the claims right after the Monument was established.

      Here’s a sample of Jim Stiles’ take on this (this link is thanks to Som Sai from a previous TSW discussion):

      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.

      Here are some folks who seem to agree with me..from this news story.

      Angelo Baca sees one way forward. “There needs to be a peacemaking process to get things restored back to balance.”

      “We need to find opportunities to build a common language,” said Sally Jewell. “To understand what we mean when we say ‘protection.’ To sit across the table from one another to get to know each other as human beings and to recognize that we’re not actually very far apart. We care deeply about the land, about our families and the next generation, and the traditions that are important to us.”

      But many wonder if it is possible to find consensus among the deep divisions. The question remains, how can Utah’s diverse voices and interests in this extraordinary landscape find common ground?

      Unfortunately IMHO, when it was Monumentized, the peace process was nipped in the bud and has now become politicized. But it can become unpoliticized. The Biden Administration can just say “no, we’re going to start over and do a deal that most people can live with.”

      There are also a variety of TSW posts and discussions on Bears Ears and its history that you can find by using the search box.

      But back to my suggestion of equivalence.
      Both the Monument (as opposed to other management choices for the land) and the Supreme Court nominations were ideas conceived of and carried out by interest groups, over opposition by others. I’m no expert on the legal community, but I would bet that people were making lists of Supreme Court justices long before the 2016 election, so I’m not sure the timeframe of discussion is all that different.

      • with regard to… “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 think this is a legitimate observation of knee-jerkism. I might point out the existence of similar unfounded fears that Monuments will be the ruination and destruction of all locally held values.

  2. As Clinton was leaving office, his administration pushed a new plan for Sierra Nevada National Forests out, on New Years Eve of his last term. That plan included a revised diameter limit of 20 inches, as well as a 12 inch limit in the WUI. At the time, our Timber Management Officer called it a “train wreck”. The annual cut was to be reduced to 2.2 million on our Ranger District, down from 65 million in 1988. It took 4 years of the GW Bush Administration to amend the plan, returning diameter limits to what the earlier CASPO guidelines recommended.

    Ironically, that was the time (December 2000) I finally became a permanent timber employee.

  3. I’m wondering if Bears Ears is just going to become the Hyde Amendment of public lands. Every Democratic administration enlarges it, and every Republican administration shrinks it. I guess that’s what happens when you designate a monument with no local support and it becomes completely politicized.

    • It’s an absolute lie to claim Bears Ears National Monument has “no local support.” It’s also a very disrespectful (perhaps even approaching on racist) thing to say considering the fact that there is so much Indigenous support for Bears Ears.

      See: https://bearsearscoalition.org/

      In July of 2015, leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe , Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe founded the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Each Coalition Tribe exercises its inherent right to self-determination by appointing a delegate to represent its interests in the Coalition’s work, in tandem with an MOU signed by all five Tribal councils that invests power in and ascribes limits to Coalition activities. In this way, we are distinct from a typical non-profit or grassroots organization because we are an extension of each Tribe’s sovereign authority.

      The Coalition Tribes are unified in the effort to protect this landscape we call Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, in our Native languages, all of which mean “Bears Ears.” Today, a total of 30 Tribes have expressed support for protecting the Bears Ears landscape for all future generations. We are pursuing this goal by working collaboratively with our partners to immediately address needs on the landscape and by developing a land management plan for the greater Bears Ears landscape (1.9 million+ acres) that is rooted in our Indigenous perspectives and place-based conservation strategies, developed over centuries. This land has been occupied before the United States was a country and we continue to exercise our political sovereignty in our advocacy for Bears Ears and use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to improve management of this sacred place in a manner that promotes its resilience for all to enjoy.

      • For years people have been advocating for enlargement of the Cascade Siskiyou monument, which Obama did as he left office. But that doesn’t mean it had wide public support. This is also true of several of the recent wilderness additions and proposals. I find that most people really don’t understand what wilderness designation really means, but that most people like the idea of the wilderness, out there somewhere. I think is a cheap shot when done by exiting presidents and politicians trying to gather votes.
        I am personally opposed to wilderness designation. I do enjoy being out in the “wilderness”. The laws restricting activities in wilderness areas as well as our national monuments at times make us incredibly stupid and I believe can lead to their ultimate degradation by neglect.
        I think the wilderness starts right outside your door.

  4. Speaking of a “Sharp Stick in the Eye.”

    Here’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and a young woman who had the audacity to ask Secretary Zinke a question about Bears Ears.

    Here’s the video of the encounter:

    • Fortunately we’re not talking violence here, but as Dr. MLK, Jr. said:

      “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”

      I think his point was that the cycle of meanness must stop somewhere. A Biden presidency seems like a good place to me.

  5. I think the “stick-in-the-eye” analogy gets at motivation and satisfaction in someone losing, rather than the merits of the decision. While that now seems to be the Trumpublican norm, is there evidence of that here from the Obama administration?

    I agree with Leslie that it doesn’t even fall into the “norm” of last-minute power grabs by outgoing administrations.

    But I also have a problem with comparing this to the Supreme Court at the other end of the timeline. Monuments and unmonuments can be undone and redone; a Supreme Court justice is for life.

    I also think you mischaracterized what Biden has said he would do. “Immediate steps to reverse” could include just what you have suggested.

  6. Sorry to be late to the dance. Kind of patronizing of Zinke to tell the woman to “be nice” while pointing his finger at her, when asked about his communication with tribal leaders, who Zinke totally threw under the bus in his ah… “reconsideration” of Bears Ears. I second the fact that Bears Ears “happened” after election, but was the product of many YEARS of good faith collaboration, notably with tribes that had important values at stake, and who are largely ignored and patronized in public land debates (see notably recent Tongass NF Roadless Area dust-up, e.g.). I also find it less than credible when Republicans like Utah Gov and Senators, especially, complain about the exercise of raw political power (note SCOTUS Barrett appointment) when that is their lingua franca.

    • Jim, as I pointed out, I think the idea of “many years of “good faith” collaborations” is contested by folks who are not R’s such as the Jim Stiles and Amy Joi O’Donoghue (both journalists, not R politicians) I linked to above. Sure, at the end of the day someone has to make the decision when people disagree, but I don’t think I would call this “good faith collaboration.”

  7. Then there is the problem of framing the question as “how can Utah’s diverse voices and interests in this extraordinary landscape find common ground?” Not surprising that local media would do this, but others could legitimately ask what role the rest of us have in what happens to these federal lands.


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