If Mike Lee Has His Way, Utah Won’t Get More Monuments

19 Jul

Last Wednesday, Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee introduced a new bill that would limit “the establishment or extension of national monuments in the state of Utah.” Except…it feels a lot like old bills he’s introduced, with no success, in the past.

This go-round, Lee’s calling it the PURE Act, which stands for “Protect Utah’s Rural Economy.”

It’s his latest political spike strip, meant to impair a president from creating new national monuments in his state. In September 2016, Lee sponsored a bill that would prohibit extensions of monuments without the go-ahead from Congress. In August 2015, it was a bill that would modify the president’s ability to declare monuments (which was nearly identical to a bill he co-sponsored seven months prior). Actually, Lee has tried to squash presidential power to create monuments since at least June 2011 with his Federal Land Designation Requirements Act, which sought to curb the establishment of new national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and the like.

But the PURE Act is slightly different—at least in tone, name, and, perhaps most important, in the political era it’s being introduced. Last year, the Trump administration rolled back several national monuments, and two of those—Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears—are in Utah. “In both cases, the local residents were not appreciative of the monument, and the state did not have a voice in the designation itself,” Conn Carroll, communications director for Lee, told Outside. Lee’s PURE Act “would provide pretty much the same protections that Wyoming has,” Carroll says.

It’s maybe a little-known fact, but it’s true that Wyoming and Alaska restrict the establishment of new monuments within their boundaries unless Congress approves. Both were special cases, passed for different reasons, but it’s something Lee seems very interested in bringing to Utah.

For Alaska, this moment came in 1971, when President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It was meant to settle disputes over Native lands there, and it gave the secretary of the interior—at the time, Rogers C.B. Morton—the ability to withdraw lands from ANCSA that he thought should be protected and gave him the ability to set aside up to 80 million acres for potential conservation. But there was a catch: Congress had five years to green-light that land for federal protection or else it would be handed back for potential development. By 1978, it still hadn’t made any action on the land.

In December 1978, President Jimmy Carter set aside 56 million acres of Alaskan land as monuments for federal protection. “It’s noted by some folks as the most significant land conservation measure in history,” says Alexandra Klass, a distinguished McKnight University professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Alaskans, however, were not too happy. Protesters burned an effigy of Carter, then organized the Great Denali Trespass, in which upset locals entered the park to shoot off guns in protest. To appease angry state legislatures, Congress passed a law putting an end to presidentially declared monuments.

In Wyoming, drama over public lands and the president’s use of the Antiquities Act there started much earlier, in the 1920s, when—according to one Washington Post article—rich conservationist John D. Rockefeller started snatching up land near Jackson Hole that he would later donate to the federal government. The understanding was that the land would be set aside for a national park, and by 1943, when that hadn’t happened, Rockefeller threatened to sell. So President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped in with the Antiquities Act, establishing Jackson Hole National Monument.

People were outraged. Ranchers drove more than 500 head of cattle across the monument in protest, egging the National Park Service to stop them. Soon, Congress passed a bill that no more lands could be set aside as monuments in Wyoming—but Roosevelt vetoed it. More drama ensued. Finally, in 1950, seven years after Jackson Hole was designated, it was folded into Grand Teton National Park. Part of the compromise the federal government made with Wyoming legislators was that no further monuments could be established in their state.

Lee’s PURE Act follows the Wyoming mold, says John Ruple, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. “It’s a reaction to the president-declared monuments,” he says. “This is a question of their voice being drowned out by distant federal bureaucrats. That’s the narrative at least.”

At 63.1 percent, the federal government controls more land in Utah than in Alaska or Wyoming (61.3 and 48.4, respectively). Utah congress members, like the Trump administration, have made it pretty clear that they see the value of public land in what can be extracted from it. So Ruple says Lee’s attempt to stop monuments in Utah is “making sure that lands don’t get taken off the table for mining and gas.”

Lee’s office disagrees with that take. Carroll, Lee’s communications director, says the bill is about putting Utah decisions in the hands of Utahns. “What has to be stressed is we’re not talking about undoing Zion or undoing the national parks. We’re talking about a bunch of Bureau of Land Management land that is not visited by that many people,” he says. (Nearly 1 million people visited Grand Staircase-Escalante in 2014. By way of comparison, Utah’s famous Arches National Park saw 1.6 million visitors that year.)

Some of Lee’s top campaign donors were oil and gas companies, like Halliburton, and he is also representing anti–public lands Tea Party interests. Lee was given a check for more than $111,000 during his campaign from Kirkham Motorsports—whose owner said during his own 2012 run for Utah governor that he was in complete support of opening up public lands to the extraction industry.

Lee, too, is a land-transfer advocate. “When it comes to federal parks that already exist, we don’t think those need to be transferred to state control,” Carroll says. “But when it comes to the other millions of acres that haven’t been designated yet, that are not forests or not monuments, we do think that should be transferred to local control.”

And despite numbers from the Outdoor Industry Association that, compared with the extraction industry, three times as many Utah jobs depend on the outdoor recreation opportunities provided by Utah public lands, Lee writes in a statement on his website, “Rural Americans want what all Americans want: a dignified decent-paying job, a family to love and support, and a healthy community whose future is determined by local residents—not their self-styled betters thousands of miles away.”

“Utah should embrace tourism,” Carroll tells Outside. “But tourism can’t be the only focus.”

If there are plenty of jobs in Utah because of monuments, then maybe it’s the last part of Lee’s statement that tips his hand—that this is about Utahns deciding what’s good for Utah. When I ask Carroll, he says that’s exactly right.

“You can have lots of arguments [if monuments are] good for the state of Utah or bad,” says Klass, the law professor. “It has certainly helped the tourism industry but is less good for extractive industries. So who gets to decide what’s good for the state of Utah?”

Trump has shown he’s willing and even an advocate for public lands rollbacks. But Ruple thinks the president might hedge at signing the PURE Act, because while it does fit into his M.O. for putting profits over conservation, it cuts sharply against his love of his own authority. “I think that’s an interesting question,” Ruple says. “Would a president sign a bill that limits his own power?”

Inside Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior

2 Jan

Kate Kelly was cautiously optimistic when President Donald Trump nominated Ryan Zinke to head the Department of the Interior in March. The former DOI communications director under secretary Sally Jewell told me that many interior staffers were excited about this cowboy from Montana who spoke of native sovereignty and said he opposed selling public lands.

Kelly’s optimism faded as Zinke’s team transitioned into office. “It’s very clear there’s a huge gap between his rhetoric and reality,” she says. (Kelly, as a political appointee of Barack Obama, tendered her resignation under the Trump Administration, and now works as the public lands director for the Center for American Progress). “[Zinke has] definitely put a lot of work into the facade of being a Westerner, but his actions appear to betray these Western roots.”

After months of interviewing past and present DOI staff (most of whom asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs), I got the distinct impression that Zinke is the captain of a ship that isn’t sinking—it’s just floundering. Zinke has ordered that a new course of direction be set, but no one’s at the helm steering. Meanwhile the people at the oars are flailing, treading water with no forward progress. Many people I spoke with said the department is critically understaffed, with too few senior leaders to make effective policy changes. And when policy changes do happen, the execution is haphazard at best.

Take climate change research, for instance. “All that outreach work, even scientists speaking at conferences, has stopped,” says Joel Clement, who served as a senior scientist and policy expert in the DOI for seven years, mainly focusing on efforts to fight climate-change. Most non-federal advisory committees that provide expert advice are “on ice,” he says, while the U.S.G.S. Climate Science Centers “are on pins and needles waiting to see how they will be treated in the budget.” After Zinke’s appointment, Clement found himself re-assigned to an accounting position in the Office of Natural Resources, where he would be in charge of approving, among other things, oil and gas leases. In October, he resigned from the DOI, citing poor leadership, wasted taxpayer dollars, and climate-change denial as his reasons for leaving.

He’s not the only one wary of the new leadership. In June, Zinke proposed slashing 4,000 employees—eight percent of the department. Later that month, Michael Nedd, acting deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management, sent a letter to employees indicating that up to 1,000 of those jobs could be cut from the BLM. Then in September, Zinke infamously called a third of his DOI staff “disloyal.” After that, Clement says, morale plummeted to an all-time low. “Staff are openly mocking the Secretary’s ethical struggles and lack of respect for both mission and career staff,” he says. 

The department had already been grappling with a charged workplace environment. Last week, the Federal Consulting Group and the CFI Group released the Work Environment Survey, which gives a sense of how DOI employees felt before Zinke took over. More than 21,300 people—a third of the department’s staff—reported that they had experienced some type of harassment at work in the previous year. Numbers across all of Interior’s departments were high: 19 percent of National Park Service employees said they experienced gender-based harassment; nearly 25 percent of Office of the Special Trustee employees reported racial discrimination; and 40 percent of employees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs said they had experienced some sort of harassment.

Earlier this fall, Zinke’s deputy secretary David Bernhardt had sent an email to staff naming two DOI employees who had been accused of harassment and misconduct. “I share these examples because you need to know that your leadership is listening,” he wrote. “We will hold people accountable when we are informed that they have failed in their duties and obligations.”

Former employees said emails like these, instead of being reassuring, made employees more fearful, with a threatening note that seemed to echo Zinke’s exhortations for loyalty. In the same email, Bernhardt reprimanded those who strayed from their oath of office as public servants:  

I am troubled that there is not a universal sense in the Department of the Interior (Department) that those few employees who have failed to uphold these standards are appropriately being held accountable. Please be assured, that I am committed to ensuring that leaders at all levels of the Department are, themselves, ensuring that legally sound, measured, and decisive action is being taken.

In the midst of all his talk of slashing jobs, Zinke—with nine months as secretary—has yet to fill several positions that require Senate confirmation. There have been no nominees for some of the department’s most key positions: the directors of the Bureau of Land Management, Department of US Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, according to a running total kept by the Washington Post.

That’s not to say the department is totally leaderless, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Employees “are getting direction. But they’re not getting direction from people that have any on-the-ground experience in the agency,” he says. And without directors of several departments, it leaves their missions a state of limbo. “The mission of the park service: who’s supposed to be in charge of keeping that secure? We don’t know,” he says.

The problem will likely only get worse. According to a report by the United States Government Accountability Office, over 30 percent of Interior employees will be retirement-eligible in 2018. Some worry that people may choose to retire, leaving the DOI in a lurch to find qualified people. “One of the issues we were working on and struggling with was making sure we were hiring great talent to make sure there wasn’t a huge drop-off of experienced people in a few years,” Kelly, the former DOI communications director, says.

But the biggest issue may be that the top echelon of leadership doesn't know how to affect policy change, said one of my contacts, who wished to remain anonymous. The DOI leadership isn’t adding to the body of law that governs how we use America’s lands and resources, they said. They don’t appear to be giving any thought to it. "The objectives of the administration aren’t even being achieved. It’s like they’re tying their own shoelaces together and they’re upset when they trip and fall,” my source said. “You have to understand that there aren’t a bunch of obstructionists in the department…We’re all standing there with an oar waiting for someone to let us row."

Kelly, the former DOI communications director, was even blunter. “What we’re seeing is a lot of solutions in search of a problem. And a lot of policies that appear to be driven by vindictiveness.” Her remark reminded me of a comment I saw when I read some of the millions of public statements that came in during the national monuments review this spring. It was simple and to the point: “undo everything obama did !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

"I spent most of 2017 expecting that any minute the people who understood policy development and understood the way that government works were going to walk through the door,” said my anonymous source. “And they just never come."

The Fight for Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

14 Sep

National monuments aren’t created overnight. Just ask Dave Willis, a 65-year-old outdoorsman in Southern Oregon who started advocating for protection of the area now known as Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument when he was 30 years old. By the time President Bill Clinton finally designated 52,947-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, in 2000, Willis had already been fighting for its creation for 17 years. 

“Dave, my God, that guy has devoted his life to this,” says Michael Parker, a biologist at Southern Oregon University, who joined Willis in advocating for the monument in 1994. 

So when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended last month that President Donald Trump shrink Cascade-Siskiyou, along with at least two other national monuments in Utah, Willis was understandably devastated. It was a blow to thirty years of work, of building partnerships between local cities, towns, senators, and governors. While other advocates have disappeared—some have lost interest, several have died—Willis has arguably remained the most consistent voice in favor of Cascade-Siskiyou. 

Willis’s fight started in a January 1983 public meeting in Medford, Oregon. Willis—a young mountaineer from Corvallis who’d lost both of his hands and most of his feet to frostbite during a climb up Denali, and who considered the area along the border between Oregon and California his backyard—argued over the din of voices from ranchers, timber companies, and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts to preserve the area’s biodiversity. “I was just a concerned citizen,” he told me on the morning of his 65th birthday—the day after Zinke’s announcement. “It was where I lived.” 

For years, Willis wrote letters and called legislators, encouraging them to protect the “lost world,” as he called it. Much of his work centered around assuaging the concerns of opponents, chief among them the ranching community. He and other advocates helped raise over $1 million to pay ranchers to donate their grazing leases to the Bureau of Land Management. He also focused on putting the size of the proposed monument in context: the 53,000-odd acres advocates wanted set aside was relatively conservative compared to other national monuments that spanned millions of acres, like 1.9-million Grand Staircase-Escalante and 1.6-million Mojave Trail. 

Willis’s advocacy drew other like-minded Southern Oregonians into its orbit. “Dave is definitely the leader of the monument fight,” says Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The rest of us just line up and try to keep up with him.” 

Willis wasn’t the only one who saw the region as special, which made recruiting other supporters easy. Scientists were especially easy to convince, as the region is a place of extreme and unique biodiversity. The current Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument sits in the corridor where the Cascade, Klamath-Siskiyou, and Klamath mountains converge. It is home to an enormous number of native species of fish, frogs, moths, butterflies, and plants. “Describing this area’s outstanding biodiversity is like looking thru a kaleidoscope,” says Evan Frost, an ecologist with Wildwood Consulting, a professional forestry company based out of North Carolina. “From every angle one explores this area, the monument’s ecological riches are seen in unexpected ways.”

Jack Williams was a Ph.D student at Oregon State University when he was wooed by the natural bounty in the 1980s. He started studying the Upper Klamath Basin Redband Trout, a fish native to Jenny Creek, which now sets the eastern border of the monument. Williams says he was fascinated by “this little diverse ecosystem that was right in my backyard.”  

Willis, Williams, and other advocates continued to pressure legislators and to tell the story of the area’s scientific potential. But when Clinton finally made the official designation, in June 2000, Willis didn’t throw a victory party. He told the Oregonian in June 2000 that, finally, he would “take a nap and do my taxes.” He also said that the borders were inadequate: climate change and private development would require more space to adequately protect the region’s resources. The Oregonian reporter asked a local BLM field manager at the time if he would see less of Willis after the 2000 expansion. “Oh heaven’s no,” the man replied. “He doesn’t give up.”

He didn’t, and neither did scientists like Williams and Parker, of Southern Oregon University. In late January 2011—roughly 11 years after Clinton established the monument—they were a part of a group of 15 scientists from a variety of fields who convened at Southern Oregon University to discuss the area’s boundaries. “They asked themselves the question whether the original boundaries of the monument protected what the proclamation intended to protect,” Willis says. The group evaluated how private development, commodity use on public land, and—importantly—climate change would affect the area, and concluded that “the species that the monument was established to protect were endangered if the monument wasn’t expanded.” Four years later, Obama added an additional 48,000 acres. 

The threat of climate change was one of several reasons the monument was expanded; some say that it could now be its undoing. The Trump Administration has failed to acknowledge the realities of climate change, most notably by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement in June. If the Cascade-Siskiyou’s expansion had to do with climate change—even in part—could that be the reason enough for Zinke’s suggestion to shrink it?

“I think the administration probably has a variety of reasons they’d like to see the boundary rolled back on the Cascade-Siskiyou,” Williams says. “I’m sure they’re not quite as sensitive to the arguments on biodiversity and climate change because they’re not as important to them.”

Parker agrees. “It’s probably just one more check in a column, whatever their columns are in the administration,” he says. “‘Climate change? Let’s add that to the list of why we’re going after this one.’”

Willis fears the effort to shrink this place comes down to “pure partisan politics.” It’s a disheartening take, but Willis says he’ll keep going. This battle was never his alone. More than ever, he talks about allies he’ll continue to recruit to stick up for this place.

“We will oppose in court any attempted reduction of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument’s boundaries and/or protections,” he told me. 

I wish him happy birthday as we say our goodbyes over the phone.

“I wish it was happy,” he says.

Willis is ready, this time, for a fight.

Four Lies We’ve Been Told About National Monuments

22 Aug

In April, President Donald Trump charged his public lands deputy, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, with reviewing 27 of our national monuments. Since then, the ex-Navy SEAL—a guy who rocks a Boy Scout kerchief and rides a horse through Washington—has traveled the country examining which monuments are worthy of keeping and which, in Trump’s words, are just “another egregious use of government power” and should be reduced or eliminated.

Bears Ears ended up on the latter list: in June, Zinke recommended Trump shrink the 1.5-million-acre reserve. But others have avoided the chopping block, including Washington’s Hanford Reach, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon, Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant, California’s Sand to Snow, Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients, and Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks. The Secretary’s answer on the remaining monuments is due Thursday.

The whole process has been murky, with the DOI giving little indication about why Zinke has pardoned some monuments and not others. (The department didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.) The Trump administration asked for public comments of the review—and received over two million—but it’s unclear how these are going to be taken into account.

Meanwhile, some writers are piping up with old-school Sagebrush Rebellion arguments, alleging that national monuments "restrict access, weaken local economies, corrode rural communities," and imploring Trump and Zinke use the Antiquities Act correctly, not for "political gamesmanship, outdoor recreation, climate change." 

With talk like this, we decided to take on the top four myths that have been bandied about over the past five months and debunk them.

#1. No opportunities were provided to comment on the national monuments before they were designated.

In no case did local residents near any of these areas wake up one day to a new national monument in their backyards. Each area was designated after long periods of deliberation, meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and newspaper editorials.

Take the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, an 86,774-acre swath of wilderness that runs from the southwestern part of Oregon into Northern California. Discussions to protect the area started as early as January 1983. A January 7, 1983 article in the Medford Mail Tribune chronicled opposing views from meetings held over monument designation. (“Ideas Vary On Managing BLM Wilderness Study Area,” read the headline.) The conversation continued throughout the next two decades: TIME Magazine ran an article in 1999, while the Oregonian advocated for protection the next year.

By the time President Bill Clinton designated the area as a monument in the summer of 2000, locals had been providing comments—mostly positive—on their thoughts about federal protection for 17 years. 

#2. Only environmentalists support national monuments.

Monuments across the country have widespread support from a variety of groups. Take business groups. In August, small-business owners from five states convened in Montana to advocate for preserving monuments. Why? They’re driving local economies. “This isn’t just a bleeding heart wanting to save public land for the sake of the land itself,” Dan Irion, the co-owner of Taos Mesa Brewing in Taos, New Mexico, told KTVH in Helena. “Preserving public lands in the west in general is absolutely vital and necessary to the economic sustainability of our communities out west.” Joseph Catlett, owner of a burger joint in Escalante, Utah, near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, told the Great Falls Tribune the designation of that monument has made his town of 850 people thrive as other western communities disappear.

Then there are the tribal governments that have come out in favor of preserving monuments, including Utah’s Bears Ears, possibly the most politically contentious monument on Zinke’s list. “We advocated for the Bears Ears National Monument, and we remain strongly committed to its defense,” wrote leaders from the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni Tribal governments.

Finally, there are the hunting and sportspeople’s groups that have pressured Zinke to stand up for public lands “just like Theodore Roosevelt would.” Of anyone, they seem to have the tightest hold on the Secretary’s ear

#3. There’s no local support for national monuments.

Evidence shows that more locals support monuments than not. The Center for Western priorities, a Colorado-based advocacy group, analyzed a sampling of the two million comments that came in about monuments and found that 98 percent wanted to leave them as they are.

Even locals who didn’t initially support the monuments have often come around. One such example is Michael Madore, a town councilman in Millinocket, Maine. When former President Barack Obama first proposed setting aside 87,563 acres of mountainous wilderness to become Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters, Madore called it a “foolish dream” that he thought would threaten industrial jobs in the area by increasing environmental regulations. But since the monument was designated last summer by the Obama administration, Madore has come around. “I won’t say I’ve totally embraced it, but I do see it as a part of an economic puzzle that can be beneficial to the town,” he told me the phone last week. “We’re noticing some minimal but tangible evidence the monument is helping.”
Then Trump’s monument review “stirred a pot that had been left alone for awhile,” Madore says. He says Zinke talked to some locals about the monument, but not to town officials like him. The Secretary's visit “did more harm than good,” Madore says. “It just stirred up all those old feelings again. The no-park people started putting signs in their yards again. The park people started putting editorials in the local papers. It was more divisive than it was healing.”

#4. All Republicans believe national monuments should be reduced or eliminated.

While the GOP’s official platform, led by people like Zinke and Utah Representative Rob Bishop, is to reduce federal management of our public lands, there are individual Republicans who want to protect them.

In Colorado, two Republican lawmakers recently urged Trump and Zinke to take the state’s 176,000-acre Canyons of the Ancients off the list of monuments up for review. “The designation of Canyons is an example of what the Antiquities Act was intended to do,” wrote Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Scott Tipton in a letter to Zinke in May. The Republican lawmakers went on to say that oftentimes administrations don’t think about the impact designations, which bring in tourists and their money, can have on municipalities. The letter worked: by July, Canyons of the Ancients was officially off the list of monuments on Zinke’s chopping block.

Seventeen house Republicans piped up in a letter send to Zinke in June about the monument review. The group advocated for most monuments to be rolled back, but they did advocate that some monuments—like Sand to Snow—stay as-is. In August, Zinke announced Sand to Snow was off the review list. 

In Maine, Republican Senator Susan Collins recently commented that while the Katahdin Woods and Waters designation process "could have been greatly improved, it is time to put that dispute behind us. I believe that any effort to rescind the designation at this point would be a mistake.”