Spring: A Stormy Day in Washington
At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 1st, the U.S. Senate voted 68-31 to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) as President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary.
Zinke had barely settled into his first lunch hour when dozens of people rallied outside the Interior Department building in support of the Bears Ears National Monument. (SUWA’s entire DC staff was there, some wearing bear costumes in solidarity with Bears Ears.)
Two thousand miles away at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, a group of business owners from the communities surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument held a press conference highlighting the importance of monuments to local economies, and delivered more than 200 letters from local residents and businesses asking Zinke to reject calls from Utah politicians to reduce the size of the 20 year-old monument.
Meanwhile, inside Zinke’s office, the phones were ringing off the hook. SUWA had just launched a nationwide phone banking operation, and every few minutes a kind but undoubtedly beleaguered woman named Kathy would answer the phone in the Secretary’s office, take down a SUWA member’s name and where they were calling from, and note their support for keeping Bears Ears National Monument fully intact. Then the phone would ring again. Poor Kathy. Sisyphus at a desk.
Welcome to Day One on the job, Secretary Zinke! We’ve been waiting for you!
An Outbreak of Crazy in Utah
Near the top of Secretary Zinke’s agenda is a trip to Utah to investigate what he’s called the “problem” of the Bears Ears National Monument. During his confirmation hearing in mid-January, Zinke vowed to visit with those “affected” by the new monument and make a recommendation to President Trump about the monument’s future. He called the monument a “five-meter target” (i.e., the thing immediately in front of you), to be dealt with as soon as he took office.
Sensing opportunity, Utah legislators rammed through a resolution calling on Trump to rescind President Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, flanked by the state Senate president and the House speaker, gleefully signed the resolution on Friday, February 3rd, smiled for an official photo, and sent the resolution to the White House.
Tipsy with joy at having so effortlessly passed their symbolic-but-toothless resolution, Utah politicians went back for more. They passed a second resolution two weeks later demanding that Trump shrink the acreage of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that President Bill Clinton proclaimed in 1996. The unspoken hope, of course, was that Trump would neatly excise the Kaiparowits Plateau from the monument, thus opening up for development the coal reserves beneath it.
The irony (to which the state’s pro-fossil-fuel politicians remain oblivious) is that you can stand on top of the Kaiparowits Plateau today, look to the south, and see the smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station, the 2250-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona. The kicker? The station’s operators recently announced they will close the plant in December 2019 because low natural gas prices have made coal-fired electrical generation a money-losing proposition. The nearby Black Mesa coal mine in Arizona will shut down too.
Governor Herbert also signed the resolution calling for a smaller Grand Staircase (a stepping stool?), again on a Friday. But this time there was no official photo, no Senate president nor House speaker, and not much of a smile. Because two days earlier, Governor Herbert’s anti-public lands rhetoric and actions had finally blown up in his face, causing this pro-growth Governor to lose nearly $50 million in revenue for the state of Utah each year.
Good job, Governor!
The Outdoor Industry (and Nearly Everyone Else) Strikes Back
Earlier in February, Patagonia—which has long been an ardent supporter of the Tribally-led campaign to protect Bears Ears as a national monument—sent shock waves through the outdoor industry when the company announced that it would no longer attend Outdoor Retailer, the massive outdoor industry show that comes to Salt Lake City twice a year and brings in nearly $50 million in direct revenue. Its overall economic reach in Utah is estimated to be three to four times that amount, according to Visit Salt Lake, a non-profit that promotes business and tourism in the greater Salt Lake area. Outdoor Retailer is Utah’s largest convention, if not its biggest event—so large, in fact, that a new 750-room hotel had been proposed to be built (with tax-payer subsidies) next to the Salt Palace Convention Center.
What transpired in the days following Patagonia’s announcement was breathtaking to observe. The day after Patagonia announced its boycott of Outdoor Retailer, a handful of companies followed suit, including Arc’teryx, one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the outdoor market. Two days later, a number of companies declared that while they would still attend Outdoor Retailer, they would continue to raise concerns with Utah over the state government’s hostile attitude toward public lands.
It seemed a sort of stasis had been achieved, with the outdoor industry united in their criticism of Utah’s delegation and governor, but split on whether to keep attending Outdoor Retailer or boycott the show outright. Seeking to find some common ground and ease tensions, Governor Herbert organized a conference call with outdoor industry leaders—and stumbled headlong into the biggest misstep of his political career.
The conference call, by all accounts, was an unmitigated disaster. Herbert performed his usual shtick: Utah is a public lands state; we love, love, love our public lands; they’re the best. The outdoor industry was having none of it. What about your constant attacks on the Bears Ears, Guv? What about your lawsuits to establish routes in wilderness? What about your attempts to seize federal public lands for the state, and eventually for private developers?
At the end of the call, the outdoor industry leaders told Herbert that the state had one to two weeks to cease its attack on Bears Ears or Outdoor Retailer would find another host city. “If you’re giving me an ultimatum here on the phone,” Herbert said, “the answer, I guess, is we’re going to have to part ways.” The call ended abruptly soon after. Just hours later, Outdoor Retailer officials announced the show would be leaving Utah “as soon as possible” and would not even accept bids from the state for future conventions.
In less than 10 days, Herbert had lost Utah’s biggest convention, dealing a major blow to the Wasatch Front’s hospitality, restaurant and retail businesses. Not to mention the poor Uber drivers.
Having apparently learned nothing from the fiasco, the governor’s spokesperson called the Outdoor Retailer’s decision “offensive.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz insisted that the delegation’s war on Bears Ears (which is a proxy war on tribal sovereignty) wasn’t to blame. “Nobody needs to grovel with these folks,” Chaffetz declared. A thousand barstool wits across Utah finished his sentence for him: “We reserve groveling for the extractive industries.”
To be fair, Rep. Chaffetz had been through a rough couple of days when he told Outdoor Retailer officials not to let the door hit them in the ass as they left Utah. A week earlier, he faced a rebellious, overflow crowd of nearly a thousand constituents at a town hall meeting in Cottonwood Heights; another thousand stood outside the high school auditorium. His constituents upbraided him for his attacks on Bears Ears and public lands in general, as well as his stance on the Affordable Care Act and his refusal to investigate snowballing allegations of Trump’s Russian connections.
True to form, Chaffetz dismissed those who disagreed with him: the crowd was made up not of constituents but of “paid protestors.” He did solemnly don his investigative mantle, though. It was soon reported that the House Oversight Committee he chairs had launched an investigation into a tweet sent from Bryce Canyon National Park the day after President Barack Obama proclaimed the Bears Ears monument in December. The tweet welcomed Bears Ears to the national park “family” and noted that a slot for the new monument’s map had “long been held” at the Bryce Canyon visitor center. Rep. Chaffetz demanded to know whether the park ranger had any foreknowledge that the Bears Ears would be proclaimed a monument, and in doing so echoed that famous mantra from Watergate:
What did the park ranger know, and when did she know it?
The Future Is a Foreign Country Too
This next part of the story is up to you. As this issue of Redrock Wilderness goes to press, Interior Secretary Zinke has been in office for only a few weeks. We still don’t know when he will come to Utah. But we remain cautiously optimistic that he will live up to his reputation of honoring tribes and tribal sovereignty. We hope he’ll see through the fulminations of Herbert and the Utah delegation and realize there is no political upside in undoing either the Bears Ears or the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Herbert and the Utah delegation may be rabid in their hatred of the Antiquities Act, but in a recent poll, 80 percent of western voters stated that they want to see existing national monuments remain in place. (See the poll at http://coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/.)
Secretary Zinke should do the right thing. And that right thing is to tell Herbert and the Utah delegation that if they want to recast either Bears Ears or the Grand Staircase, they have to go through Congress. The president doesn’t have the authority to repeal or reduce an Antiquities Act designation in any case. If Trump attempts to do so, SUWA will see his administration in court.
In the meantime, our national phone banking operation is up and running, directing callers to the Interior Secretary’s office . . . and ruining Kathy’s day. In Utah, we’ve launched a major TV and digital ad campaign to remind Utahns that despite the rhetoric of Utah politicians, the Bears Ears National Monument is a good thing for Utah (see sidebar below). And our organizers are poised to rally supporters of the new monument from across the state when Secretary Zinke does come to the Beehive state.
We rely upon your continued support to defend Bears Ears and to push back against the many attacks on Utah wilderness that we expect the Trump administration to launch in the next four years.
But here’s a cause for hope: at the end of February, the Utah governor was in Washington for the winter meeting of the Western Governors’ Association. Reporters asked whether he spoke about Bears Ears with Trump or with Vice President Mike Pence during several meetings.
Herbert replied, “That didn’t come up. That’s kind of a Utah-specific issue.”
Tail, meet legs.
We’re going to hold this line.
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Spring 2017 issue)