Last April when outlaw-rancher Cliven Bundy began holding forth on the inner workings of his small, racist mind, Utah’s conservative politicians set a land speed record for backpedaling. Just days earlier Bundy had been their poster boy, a symbol of the aggrieved martyr complex of a small faction of westerners who attribute all their life problems to the federal government. Bundy was a novel mouthpiece for their anti-federal rage, though in most of the country he was already a pariah for his wanton criminality, his incitement of violence against federal agents, and his abuse of public lands.
It took Bundy 20 years to become an overnight laughing stock. He had been squatting illegally for two decades on federal lands with his cattle, refusing to pay his grazing fees, and rose to ignominy for inciting a multi-state militia to show up, guns aimed at BLM employees, in defense of his refusal to pay for the services he received on the backs of taxpayers. In the heady rush of his sudden ascent, Bundy began to declare his views on other topics, including that black people (although he didn’t say “black people”) were better off under slavery.
For those politicians who had cheered him on, it was an embarrassing peek under the political rock upon which they’ve built their careers. Bundy’s words did him in because it turns out, words have meaning. It’s a lesson Utah’s politicians would be wise to heed.
Fueling Hate, Evading Blame
Every time a Utah politician uses hyperbolic, violent, revolutionary language in speaking about public land issues, every time disagreements over routine things like grazing fees, ORV routes, or wildlife management are couched in the language of traitors and patriots or freedom and oppression, these words trickle down to the members of our society who are all too eager for a stroking of their angry, embittered egos. It is a kind of permission to act on their self-righteous sense of entitlement.
Over time, those sound bites bite back. We’ve seen this before. We’re seeing it now.
After the Bundy debacle, a BLM employee who had been helping to round up horses in Iron County, Utah—where wild horse numbers have been controversial—was driving on the interstate. Two people wearing hoods threatened him with a gun as they passed, holding up a sign from their pick-up that read, “You need to die.” To protect public employees from such would-be assassins, the Utah BLM began removing agency decals from its vehicles.
Tensions flared again in San Juan County, Utah, in yet another spasm of vigilantism. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman became incensed over the BLM’s closure of an illegally constructed ORV route in Recapture Canyon. So Lyman staged a ride through the closed canyon. He did it despite the fact that it is rich in archaeological sites and despite the fact that the Hopi tribe had asked him not to. The day of the ride Lyman nearly backed down, but he was goaded on by Bundy relatives who were continuing their anarchistic Western road show. Dozens of riders, many armed, rode through the canyon in defense of their perceived inalienable right to drive their motorized Big Wheels across Indian ruins or anywhere else they choose.
Tantrum-Thrower or Freedom Fighter?
But really, are we surprised? What’s a guy to do when he’s been conditioned by the political rhetoric he hears to believe his tantrums make him a freedom fighter? He first shoots off his mouth about what he means to do, and then at the first glimmer of hesitation is called the worst thing possible: chicken. Adult behavior at that point hasn’t a hope against adolescent bravado.
There’s little new in all of this. It’s been going on since way before Bundy went berserk, way before Lyman, a certified public accountant, became a certified public nuisance. It’s been going on for ages. Reacting to the proclamation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) compared it to the attack on Pearl Harbor. No matter that protecting Grand Staircase didn’t kill 2,000 people (or even one), nor did it lead to the imprisonment-by-association of everyone who was, like President Bill Clinton, from Arkansas. It certainly didn’t provoke our country to go to war. In reality, it was a shot in the arm to rural Kane and Garfield Counties, protected a wonder of the natural world, led to a smorgasbord of scientific discovery, and is now supported by the majority of Utahns.
But Hatch is a political pro. That means he’s a survivor. He’s seized the tail of the tiger that is conservatism’s extremist faction. He’s smart enough to feed the beast someone else for dinner and keep himself off the menu, at least while he can. But tigers are voracious. As we’ve seen too many times this spring, it’s easy to lose your grip on them.
Don’t Let Truth Interfere
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz has lambasted public lands as havens for Mexican drug lords, going so far as to brandish graphic shots of headless murder victims and blame land protections for their deaths. He later admitted the shots had not even been taken in the United States. But truth wasn’t the point.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) used the same argument to denounce the recently-designated Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico as an underworld den of drug runners and human traffickers. Never mind that the lands were wild and public before the monument designation, just as after. Never mind that the Border Patrol dismisses these concerns. The important thing is to inflame, to vilify, to provoke.
State legislator and resident hate-monger Mike Noel (R-Kanab) once announced in committee, apropos of nothing, that “SUWA is the enemy of the state and the people and the children of Utah.” Statements like these reveal an unhinged animus that produces neither clearheaded policy nor clearheaded followers. It begets hate and hate alone.
And so here we are. Behavior such as this once had a well-understood and shameful name in public life: demagoguery. But when so much of political speech is demagogic, maybe nothing is.
How long can our politicians expect to throw rancid ideological sustenance to the worst of their followers without consequence? How, when things escalate to standoffs, death threats against civil servants, and armed resistance of American laws, can they then back away as if they were never in league with the people they incite? Perhaps the better question is how long they can do this with impunity?
As Cyclical as Disease
Like many unfortunate cycles—cicadas, legwarmers, chicken pox—the sagebrush rebellion reemerges every time a generation has passed and people have forgotten how horrid it was the last time. Usually there’s a Democratic president, and the resurgent resentment of people who only believe in peaceful transitions of power when the election swings for their candidate. Every generation this resentment festers, swells, and then pops like the boil it is, each time in new, nasty ways. Every generation the politicians who fueled the fever wash their hands of what they wrought.
Fortunately, as this cactus craziness ebbs and flows, SUWA endures. This time will be no different. We were fighting bad developments, advocating for protection, trying to improve day-to-day BLM management and working with Congress well before any of this started—and we’ll be doing it long after these folks have taken their pitchforks home. But undeniably, context affects our work.
This iteration of hateful, irrational uprising makes things difficult as we try to work with Rep. Bishop on a large public lands package in Eastern Utah. Where we bring practicality, knowledge, and our inside voices to the table, Bishop is finding himself beholden to a stubborn faction of anti-federal diehards who threaten to torpedo the fragile trust we’ve built. Not all who line up on the other side of us fit this mold, but enough do, and they do so loudly and without inhibition. That disadvantages those of us who come unarmed and seeking a true détente through civil means.
Can Utah Produce Leaders Equal to the Task?
The only sensible path is through strong leadership. Utah’s elected officials must stand up and state clearly that threats, violence and hate are not the stuff of progress and that they will be neither explicitly encouraged nor tacitly tolerated. The delegation and the governor must disengage from the fringe elements they have bottle-fed for so long. They must trade the provocation of enmity for the cultivation of amity. Only real statesmanship can succeed.
Real statesmanship requires rejecting ideas that are abjectly silly, illegal, and reckless, in favor of those that are productive and just. That means the state’s RS 2477 lawsuits, which threaten the very possibility of resolution in a legislative agreement, must be dealt with as part of any Bishop package. It means refusing to humor state Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) and other proponents of the Utah legislature’s appalling land grab. Those boondoggles, which harm taxpayers and public lands, emerge directly from the atmosphere of paranoia that our leaders have cultivated. They must stop spending real and political capital on policies that are harmful, wasteful and irrational.
Statesmanship also means listening to the millions of Americans—from Utah’s Wasatch Front and across the country—about their hopes for these lands, instead of to just a handful about their ideological fears. The stakeholders who are committed to seeing these special places protected are diverse, and their voices deserve to be heard over the din of craven excuses of those few who see them merely as spoils to be plundered. So far, they are being ignored.
We are hopeful, but not wildly optimistic. Brant Calkin, former SUWA executive director, had a clear-headed view of elected officials in Utah. The most common utterance, he noted, was, “There go the people. I must hurry after them for I am their leader.”
But if Utah’s politicians decide leadership is just too hard, history reveals the silver lining—someone will speak up and show the leadership they lack. Concurrent to each burp of sagebrush rebellion has been a realization by the president that the unraveling sanity of angry vigilantes demands swift protection of special western places. President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton acted decisively to rebuke the uprisings of their respective eras by proclaiming important national monuments.
President Obama may need to follow suit. And we’ll certainly be encouraging him. He has already shown an increasing comfort with the Antiquities Act, and in May, upon designating Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, he declared, “I’ve preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations. And I am not finished.”
Words are powerful things. How does Greater Canyonlands National Monument sound to you?
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, summer 2014 issue)