Utah politicians recently had Trump shrink the Bears Ears National Monument. Millions of Americans knew nothing about the region before, and today most of them only understand a few 20 second soundbites from Orrin Hatch or Trump. So what really is this about?
Why was it created?
The Bears Ears National monument was created as a result of many years of work by Native American Tribes in the area in an alliance with non-Native American conservation groups. They were seeking to protect the land from oil, gas and uranium exploitation as well as prevent further negative management actions by the State and Federal Government. The 1.3 million acre area is full of archeological sites which are threatened by the extraction industry and looting as a result of easy motorized vehicle access. The State of Utah owns some subsurface mineral rights and they are a threat to wild lands on the surface.
Despite what Utah politicians say, oil and gas companies are interested in unconventional oil leases in SE Utah and began buying a lot of leases there after 2010. These actions were met with alarm by tribes and conservation groups, spurring action. In the years before 2016 different groups tried to come up with a non-Monument solution with Utah Representative Bob Bishop, however Bishop refused to listen to locals opinions to block “energy zones” within this land.
Who manages the Bears Ears National Monument?
Contrary to Koch-network propaganda the Monument was not “Obama’s” project in any way, he was simply a hand that signed a document at the end. After creation of the Monument in the end of 2016 management was given to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition . This represented a great victory for the 5 tribes in terms of control over formal ancestral land. The area has been a mix of lands administered by the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
In December 2017 Pres. Trump tried to reduce the BENM to two separate areas. In January Utah politicians announced they’d like to get legislative action to make the reduction legal and “protect” other parts. As we know from the Public Lands Initiative days we can’t trust words until we see documents. It is likely that the state-owned mineral rights blocks will be able to be developed while the federal sections are “protected”.
Why was there opposition to Bears Ears?
There are two main reasons for the opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument.
- The main reason why we see so many Utah politicians against the BENM is because the monument designation blocks access to some mineral rights owned by the state. So from an oil company’s perspective this action constituted “Federal Overreach”. Since state politicians like Governor Herbert, Orrin Hatch, Bob Bishop, Mike Lee and others are backed by oil and gas money, they began to work hard to defend their lobbyist’s interests.
- The other source of opposition to the monument was from descendents of white settlers in the area who hold a dislike for almost everything the federal government does.
- When some locals recently looted Native American sites (as some have for over 100 years) federal agents raided houses in the region. This certainly played into anti-government fears as these communities are very small and almost everyone knows the individuals who were raided.
- In the last few years federal land managers closed some of the ATV access trails in wilderness sections of the region. While federal land is owned by all 320 million Americans, many locals feel entitled to a land grab in order to control national lands. This attitude was recently stoked by terrorist Cliven Bundy when he visited the region in 2014. Land grab advocates often use smaller issues like ATV trails to justify transferring federal land to state hands, which in turn sell our public lands (either surface or mineral rights) to the highest bidders, which in turn destroys continuous ATV trail networks. We know this from the struggles we’ve had on the East Coast with unifying larger trail networks when the place is 95% private land.
- Fear of Native American control: The southern part of San Juan county is dominated by Navajo tribe members. There is a 150+ year old conflict between whites and Native Americans in the region which was partially solved by declaring the empty sections as federal land. Utah politicians pushing for land transfer, or oil companies trying to blanket the region with their well pads and access roads rips open old wounds and reignites the conflict. Keeping the wilder blocks of land away from the paved roads protected keeps this conflict in check.
The Carpet of Destruction: modern oil and gas extraction techniques
Utah has changed a lot in the last 15 years. Large parts of the state have been carpeted with gas and oil wells. This “carpet” of destruction has permanently altered landscapes around Vernal, UT and has devalued hunting and recreation grounds near the Book Cliffs. New technology combined with higher oil prices made it profitable to frack in areas that people thought were safe from exploitation. In many areas fracking has been ok as some areas had zero tourism value, and were not a “conflict” zone with tribal sovereignty. The fracking booms in Oklahoma and North Dakota helped to make the United States fully self-sufficient. Many of these oil basins will continue to produce for 30 or 50 years.
No place is sacred:
Developing energy independence is not the actual goal of oil and gas companies, profit is. This means that no place is sacred. Currently the Koch-network is taking aim at drilling everywhere including National Parks. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona proposed last February a bill that would weaken protections for National Parks. National Parks enjoy a 95% support rating in the general public in terms of protection for future generations. Mineral rights can be sold under National Parks even if the surface is supposed to be protected.
Zinke and Trump Join the Swamp Creatures:
Despite his campaign promises of not taking money from the Koch Brothers Trump put a Koch loyalist in charge of over 139 million acres of federal land as Secretary of Interior (Ryan Zinke). Trump’s prior knowledge of western land issues is about as deep as his respect for women. So as we can expect from a guy who reads no books and lives in a glass tower in Manhattan obsessing over his own business issues for decades he basically has no strong position supporting national parks or wild areas. He just let a wolf run the entire Purdue chicken farm operation.
“Stinky” Zinke, using un-recorded meetings in the US Virgin Islands, Colorado Springs and other locations keeps in contact with Koch network donors and think tanks on how to systematically destroy the American public lands system and hand drilling access over for almost free. Case in point is Zinke pushing the National Park service to raise fees from 20$ to 70$ a day claiming they are short on money, but he just approved over 3000 new gas and oil wells north of the Flaming Gorge area. He also shortened the cycle for approving gas leases to 30 days. This will allow lots of smaller companies to gain a foothold on federal lands through cheap leases. While most leases won’t get developed immediately, they will when prices of oil rise. That’s the game, buy when oil prices are cheap, develop and sell the oil when it’s high.
Keep in touch with the situation:
Read more about the skiing in the Abajos here:
Dept. of Interior website
The Navajo Nation
The Access Fund
Friends of Cedar Mesa
The Sutherland Institute
The State of Utah
The Washington Post
The New York Times
The Winter Wildlands Alliance
Various statements from militia groups including the 3 percenters
PBS – Frontline
Individual residents in San Juan County
The Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition