By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
President Donald Trump flew into Salt Lake City on Dec. 4 and announced that he was bestowing an early Christmas present upon rural counties in southern Utah.
The gift that he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivered was a decision, pre-ordained months ago, to undo a century’s worth of conservation history. It came in the form of dramatically reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Within the span of just a few days, not only did Trump roll back a legacy of landscape protection that started with Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the federal Antiquities Act—a law that many forget was also the genesis for such modern national parks (economic juggernauts) as Grand Teton and Grand Canyon; but only hours earlier the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate embedded an unthinkable anti-environment measure in the tax reform bill hastily passed last week.
That legislation inexplicably includes a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska—one of America’s most pristine landscapes—to oil and gas drilling.
If Theodore Roosevelt is considered America’s greatest conservation-minded president, are Trump and Zinke cementing their place as leaders of the most environmentally-hostile administration ever?
Like Trump’s lack of sophistication and knowledge with many things, he is apparently illiterate in his understanding of public land issues in the West.
When he described the creation of Bears Ears and Grand Escalante as “tragic federal overreach” it revealed not only his own cluelessness but that of his speechwriters in grasping fundamental shifts underway in the economy of the West.
Trump’s penchant for melodrama reminds me of a cover story I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor on the differences emerging between the boom and bust cycles that plagued traditional natural resource economies in the “Old West” and undeniable trends in the “New West.”
In 2011, a Congressional hearing was held in Washington on the value of protected federal lands. Ray Rasker, founder of Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, went to Capitol Hill to deliver his findings that resource protection continues to fuel a different kind of economic prosperity.
During the hearing, he squared off against Jerry Taylor, then mayor of tiny Escalante, Utah, a town that has long been a symbol of anti-environmental, anti-federal sentiment in the West.
Escalante is considered a gateway to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that 15 years earlier had been created by President Clinton invoking his power, as Roosevelt had done, through the federal Antiquities Act.
Contrary to myth, the land was already federally owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Essentially, however, monument status barred coal mining and intensive oil and gas development, which left many locals enraged.
Taylor testified that the prosperity mentioned by Rasker never materialized in his community. But when Taylor returned home he heard from some constituents who had started businesses catering to growing numbers of tourists and backcountry adventurers.
Trump, Zinke and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, claim the national monument brought economic hardship to Garfield County, though the remote rural county, like many in the West, has been losing population for generations.
Two years after Taylor went to Washington, he and I had a couple of thoughtful conversations. His community was desperate. School enrollment was dropping. He didn’t care what kind of job creation happened. Ironically, he noted that several young people from Escalante left town to find short-term work as roughnecks in the energy fields of Wyoming and North Dakota.
“This is a beautiful place, and I understand why they [the Clinton administration] made it into a monument. But as far as jobs go, our numbers are down. I wish we had jobs that could bring those young men home,” Taylor said. “The state of the economy is really a touchy topic. We’re having to depend upon tourism to get us through where we need to be.”
Southern Utah is a region in transition; natural resource extraction is not a pathway to achieving a reliable, sustainable future for young people seeking to find a place in the 21st century.
Jonathan Schechter, a demographer in Jackson Hole who makes his living analyzing the West, is known in the Rockies for coining this maxim: “Economies change faster than perceptions, perceptions change faster than politics, and politics change faster than laws.”
The tension between the new and old economies undergirds almost every preservation and public land-use issue in the West.
Schechter, who runs The Charture Institute, offers his own employment statistics. In Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, the total number of jobs created through agriculture, mining and forestry ranges between 3 and 5 percent for each sector. While those industries are flat, the percentage of professional service jobs is growing fast, as is the percentage of the economy represented by retiree income.
Trump, Zinke and the Sagebrush Rebels in Utah might be dancing in the end zone today, believing they’ve delivered a stunning victory, but time will tell if their anti-government, anti-conservation rhetoric leads to economic revival. History—and the opinions of most Americans—are not on their side.
Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.