By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Pretending they were cowboys, Vice President Mike Pence, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana donned caballero hats last weekend and cantered their horses up a hill on the Crow Indian Reservation.
On a quest to carefully choreograph the right political optics, they struck dramatic defiant poses for the camera, as if characters enlisted for a Marlboro commercial.
It wasn’t the first time politicians in wrangler duds have attempted to flaunt their manly bonafides by theatrically stampeding across western sagebrush for effect. Jackson Hole had its own famous episode, an act of rebellion which we’ll get to shortly.
Right now, however, it’s special election season in Montana. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by more than 20 percentage points in November, but the president’s plummeting public approval ratings nationally, fueled by his erratic personal behavior and concerns his administration may make the health care crisis worse, have GOP operatives in Washington worried.
On Saturday Mr. Pence, who was campaigning in the Treasure State on behalf of GOP Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte—who’s vying for the seat recently vacated by Zinke—autocratically pronounced, “On behalf of the president of the United States, I’d like to declare that the war on coal is over.”
Pence’s declaration came not many hours after the same president of the United States signed a trade agreement, increasing natural gas exports to China, that further dooms any possible resurrection of the American coal industry.
Few respected economists believe coal is coming back—bad news for a state like Wyoming swimming in hundreds of millions of dollars of budget shortfalls. Most experts note it wasn’t climate change policy that brought down coal; rather, a glut of natural gas and oil, the development of which was ironically zealously pushed by the same Wyoming politicians who are now stuck dealing with an energy market mess they helped create.
As for the worn-out analogy of “a war” being waged against coal by the Obama Administration and the false hope Republicans are peddling to western miners, the truth doesn’t matter to avowed swamp drainers riding high in the saddle.
Earlier last week, Interior Secretary Zinke went to Utah. There, he visited the new Bears Ears National Monument, set aside by Obama and the result of decades of public discussion, most of it aimed at safeguarding 1.35million acres of Bureau of Land Management tracts holding 100,000 indigenous artifacts, one of the largest unprotected troves of cultural heritage in America.
Following Trump’s vow to “review” 27 national monuments created since 1996 and setting the stage for them possibly being undone, Mr. Zinke contributed to several patently false assertions—that Bears Ears involved a federal land grab, that it would prevent the Navajo from engaging in subsistence activities, that it will devastate the economy of San Juan County and that Indians (according to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch) don’t understand what national monument status for Bears Ears means.
Prior to this “fact-finding session,” Zinke, Gianforte and Daines barnstormed across Montana in the company of Donald Trump Jr. who touted his father’s credentials as a self-proclaimed maverick. It’s a bold move by Gianforte to declare himself a loyalist to Trump, who now owns the lowest public approval ratings of any president in history through his first three months of office.
What does any of this have to do with Jackson Hole? The ride in Montana is reminiscent of a PR event carefully orchestrated in 1943 when the late rancher Clifford Hansen led a Bundy-like protest against the federal government.
Hansen and Hollywood actor Wallace Beery rode with guns in hand to overturn Jackson Hole National Monument, set aside by Franklin Roosevelt who invoked the federal Antiquities Act. Hansen was then a Teton County commissioner and would go on to serve as governor and U.S. senator.
Had Hansen and his wild bunch prevailed 74 years ago, Grand Teton National Park as we know it today might not exist and along with it the $728 million in economic activity it generates.
Many would argue the anti-conservation agenda led by Trump and supported by western lawmakers, including all three members of Wyoming’s Congressional Delegation, is itself an expression of monumental shortsightedness, the same as it was in 1943.
Cliff Hansen came around and, to his credit, admitted he was wrong. But his GOP descendants who continue to spin false narratives about conservation, public lands, climate change, coal and health care may be in for a rude awakening.
No longer can Republican elected officials continue to evade town hall meetings because they are afraid of being confronted by angry constituents demanding accountability. How many real cowboys hide in the bushes?
If or when Trump tumbles, those who stood by him, or worse, who said nothing because they were too afraid to speak the truth, will have a lot to answer for.
Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear mother 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen. The book is only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.