The recent demotion of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante as national monuments pose risk of a deepening widespread and almost inevitable alienation from public lands. The tenuous status of public lands was apparent in the mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to cut the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West. And even as our so-called President touts his relation to the common people, apart from the political class, the removal of protected status from national monuments suggests a proprietary relation to public lands at odds with the longstanding protection of monuments. The Trump administration’s hasty decision to remove Bears Ears from the list of protected lands suggests an abandonment of that image of the heroic cowboy, replaced by the disillusioned world-weary post-industrialist capitalist character we seem to have as American President.
Rather, they conjur the image of the identification with the legends of the white man in the open space of the American west’s sun-drenched outdoors, whose landscape was open to the grit of white, male conquest of an empty space.
For Trump has definitively moved away from that imaginary, and the image of the open frontier, or of this land is your land, this land is my land, into a vision where the very same land is now poised to be opened to mineral extraction and prospecting, reducing the area once identified with the West to an area defined by the priority of industrial claims, and transforming it to a terrain inviting the colonization by extractive industries. With his pursed lips, and evasive eyes, turning his back on a monumental landscape of the West, President Trump appears oblivious the destruction of space to occur across the national monuments opened to prospective mining, extraction of resources, and mineral industries, as if to deny their history, and allow the big rigs of extractive industries to enter to repossess those areas they have claimed on the map.
The preservation of a national monument that would rejoin fragmentary Indian Lands, indeed, was the strategic scope of the declaration of the two regions as part of our protected national heritage, in an attentive to remove previously protected lands from mineral prospecting in southern Utah, with the aim to improving the local economy and attract investment to the state now represented by Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who have both advocated the proposal to open the region to prospectors, with far less concern for its future of the country–responding to heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, which provoked a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrunk the monument to newly reduced boundaries. For Hatch, eagerly labeling the designation of the national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” evoking the increasingly militant anti-federal lands movement, particularly strong in Utah, who act as if the government had hidden interests in staking claims to a territories form wildlife refuges, conservation areas, national parks, or national monuments, summons a misguided anti-government credo as a basis for ending public lands.
In replacing a sense of “goods” for the nation worthy of protection by the federal government–the purpose of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which expanded executive ability to conserve areas for preservation of their historical or scientific interest–to a vision of the executive asfacilitating abilities for exploitation of national space, and ensuring energy extraction.
The result is to threaten fragile material evidence of the region’s prehistoric inhabitation in a site recently put off-limits to oil and gas exploration on account of its use value to extractive industries, contesting the inherent value of preserving an area that has been considered among the most “endangered” historical sites in America. There is a well known precedent of prospectors seizing the sacred grounds of the Lakota Sioux native peoples, that were in fact ceded to them by the United States government in 1868, in the Black Hils of South Dakota, to create out of the former sacred site that became the National Park of Mt. Rushmore, after gold deposits were found underground, leading to a renegotiation attempt that led to a massive slaughter of hundreds of women and children, until the national monument of Mt. Rushmore confirmed the imperial acquisition of the land, by engraving iconic images of past Presidents on the Black Hills to affirm its incorporation into the nation’s body, with five faces of United States Presidents presiding in regal fashion over the region by sculpting their faces out of the Black Hills where GEn. Custer had defeated the valiant defensive acts of Sioux Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse:
If the same logic of prospecting has caused the National Monument of Bears Ears to be reduced to a rump, to allow extractive industries with ties to the current President to erode the Presidential Declaration of his predecessor, the point-based logic of GPS maps of underground reserves has determined a new perimeter to be drawn, reducing the size of the monument to allow rapid extraction and export of oil and other fossil fuels on rigs, to accommodate the request of oil and gas company requests to drill in the monument that have been advocated from 2013, allowing access to over 100,000 acres of land, often filled by sacred ruins, within a mile or inside of the declared eastern boundary of the National Monument, that stand to attract increased road traffic, vehicles, and workers in close proximity to the eighty-eight parcels of national lands that President Trump seeks to auction off–setting a terrifying precedent for privatizing public lands, and for privileging commercial interests regarding sites deemed of value without consideration for the landscape that lies above them.
After a long and intense attempt to resolve inclusively an accord with the Inter-Tribal Council of areas that were deemed too sacred to be sacrificed for commercial interests, no matter their economic benefit, that led many native lands to be affirmed as a National Monument, the rewriting of the map of national priorities with which Donald Trump entered office has led to a wholesale revision of the map of protected lands, and the rewriting of federal land management and protection, as well as the power of the Antiquities Act to accommodate lands deemed of unique in their historical interest for the country, by economic criteria, rather than historic worth.
The rewriting of what constitutes a national monument is quite a sense of a sharp change in history, marked by an inevitable separation of the landscape from the past. The shift of Bears Ears from a site worthy of conservation,seems definitively erased as the revelation of the minerals, oil, and gas that lie beneath the ground within the earlier boundaries of the former National Monument. The possibilities of extraction had been mapped in surveys of the mineral resources of the region, which focus not on the delicate nature of its environment; the map of minerals ignores sacred remains lying on the surface in its boundaries, and foreground them, rather than the delicate ecosystem of animals and pure water. Indeed, its pollution would irreparably compromise the region, and replace the reasons cited for its historical and cultural value to its exchange value.
Are we in danger of mipmapping not only our national patrimony, but future? It is almost as if Trump is following a new map, provided by the extractive industries with which he has thrown in his lot. And in place of preserving individual sites of antiquity, this map shifts from the above-the-ground complex ecosystem and archeological ruins previously cited as warranting protection for future generations and for the nation: what was a “good” for the nation is in the course of being redefined, as the underground “goods” able to be extracted displace those lying on the surface of a bioregion of southeastern Utah currently in danger of being compromised–even as the newest national monument in the intermountain desert protected by Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition largely in recognition of widespread evidence of its historic inhabitation. While Trump argues at his own tribal rallies, exultantly insisting “we’re into [clean air and water” also, folks–but you don’t have to turn off all business!” even as the EPA rolls back clean air and water rules, the absence of attention to environmental preservation in the national monument is striking and mind boggling, if not a relinquishing of duty.
By revoking the region’s status as a national monument, and reducing the protected area to almost 80 percent of the current Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument by 45 percent, Trump has divided Bears Ears into two smaller regions, to allow access to the red, mineral-rich areas, in particular, following on the recommendations of his Interior Secretary drastically to shift the status of a considerable range of national monuments that would include the historic mesas.
The new geography of the national monument suggests a vision that is stubbornly and insistently reduced to mineral resources, flattening the historical value of the region and replacing any sense of its place by mapping it at a dangerous remove, and foregrounding the value of its industrial resources above its landscape. Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History could not see the destruction of the open spaces of lands until after they have occurred, of course, at which point they lie at the feet of the Angelus Novus, who is propelled forward in time, seeing only the wreckage at his feet; but the rewriting of the material relation to the land–and the symbolic relation to the land–constitute a broad remapping of the place of the west and western lands within our minds. If labor was the exploitation of nature for Benjamin, the exploitation of nature rests both on material labor, but the remapping of the landscape we once saw as part of historical memory as a nation to a material resource, destined to be opened to a growing energy market, and be converted into petroleum and gas. Trump has, in short, turned his back on any romantic concept of the open spaces of the west, with some uncertainty, as he seems to take a step into an unknown future of open access to energy resources mapped as lying under these once hallowed grounds, which stand to become transformed into an industrialized landscape, and changed beyond recognition, without a sense of what we have lost.
We are in danger of losing any sense of the picture on the ground. The map of resources seems to compromise the map of the land by local inhabitants, or indeed the picture of the region on the ground of a lived landscape, filled with rich traces, and freshwater streams, that has long held status as a sacred site in our national imaginary as a frontier.
The accelerated arrival of an entirely new relation to the land, as extractive industries that has been used to demote Bears Ears from a nationoal monument stands to transform open spaces that were once identified with the mythos of the nation. The resulting removal of all regulations that the reduction of national monuments would mean fails to understand the monument as an ecosystem of environmental integrity, and indeed the historical value of the lands as sites: it is almost as if the difficulty of defining the value in a society which uses GPS to map locations on a UTM projection to locate mineral deposits and sites of potential petroleum drilling–and erases the holistic image of a vanishing landscape that has long been so central a part of our national patrimony. For by reducing the land set aside in the National Monument to questions of cash flow, the administration seems to have decided to use a map to abstract the Bears Ears area to the value of resources hidden beneath its historic landscape.
Mesas of the Valley of the Gods in former Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah/Alex Goodlett for The New York Times
The revisionary mapping of public lands that has occurred within the Trump administration is no less than a dramatic revision of national priorities. It reveals something like an amnesia of the relation to the land, now seen as an antiquated practice of political regulation, and a rhetoric of opening valuable historical regions to mineral prospecting, in ways that no President has ever elected to disrespect one of his predecessors by rescinding the area of a designated monument that a president has decided to set aside. In ways that shifts our relation to our own futures and pasts, the remove of the landscape suggests a remapping of priorities and space, removing protections from red rock canyons where some 10,000 artifacts remain. As parcels of that landscape increasingly stand to be leased to extractive industries, despite the fragmentation of open lands across western states. Indeed, the encroaching the interests of the American Petroleum Institute on what was once understood as preserved wilderness has become a way to rewrite the state’s relation to federal lands, and indeed the patriotism of the protection of public lands of longstanding historical value. In ways that reflect the deep anger at the protection lands negotiated by the Obama administration–and done so in a way that tried to involve community stakeholders over time, if concluded late in the Obama Presidency–and the obscuring of claims historically made from 1976-2010 alone in the region once defined as Bears Ears–
–the division of the national monument into two rumps opens many of the areas where mining claims were staked, and allows further claims to be made, as well as encourages easy transport of extracted materials from the historic grounds, by denying their claims to historical value. Indeed, by reopening many of the BLM claims on the region, the decision to parse Bears Ears from a continuous monument seems a give-away to extractive industries.
The gains of that lobby in asserting their claims and rights to access mineral deposits and veins stands to emerge as one of the largest land grabs in American history, reshaping the notion of the protection of public lands and access allowed to drilling, pipelines, and mines on federal lands, as if definitively abandoning any concept of the value in their preservation for posterity. Indeed, only by recasting the role of government as securing lands worthy of protection as a case of undue restraint on business can the dire effects of the plans for expanding private leases on public lands be failed to be recognized as a shifting the preservation of historical legacies to permit widespread industrial leases on federal lands in ways that abandon and relinquish a clear long-term view of their value. When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke questioned whether a third of Interior employees were “loyal to the flag” before the National Petroleum Council, a petroleum industry group–and desired to reduce the “physical footprint” of the Interior Department by reducing the civil service employees who he sees as obstacles to opening up the permitting process for oil-drilling, logging, uranium mining, and energy development he sees as President Trump as having a legal mandate to accelerate, Zinke seems to make an end-run around the public custody or preservation of increasingly fragile lands of sacred resonance to many of the residents who most prize its integrity.
Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument
Indeed, the agressively regressive attacks that the Trump administration has made on environmental regulations or responsible custodianship of public lands–leading states to file suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for rolling back agency policies of designating areas of dangerously high ground-level ozone in unprecedented ways–is mirrored in the attack on protecting public lands, on which the Interior Secretary seems to have no endgame save leasing them to industry. The agressiveness with which Zinke has taken aim at the government’s custodial role over wilderness and public lands–some of the few places where undisturbed ecologies exist–suggest a widespread attack on the notion of wilderness. Is it possible that the Trump administration is preparing to excavate any federal mandate to protect historic lands, as well as to allow the expansion of extraction across previously protected lands?
When Interior Secretary Zinke complains “I can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he suggests a broad disbanding of regulations accumulated over time with local groups after consideration of public impact that he wants to cast as obstructionists and arbitrary bureaucrats. Yet when Zinke suggested that “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us,” he conjures a terrifying hybridization of manifest destiny and unrestrained corporate greed. Zinke’s initial review of a full twenty-one National Monuments on federal land stand to change the landscape of the American west. For in removing acreage of interest to private industry from federal protection, in a particularly short-sighted move under the quixotic banner of energy independence, the Trump administration seems bent on allowing the very federal lands protected by government for posterity to be treated as lots able to be leased for private development, without appreciation of their historical, cultural, or sacred value. The map of National Monuments under “review” suggest a euphemism analogous to downsizing, and a shift in the conception of the custody of national lands–including the Grand Canyon–that seems to prepare for the excavation of what were the most protected federal lands.
The expansion of national monuments currently designated “under review”–which has led to the recent declaration shrinking Bears Ears and renaming two protected areas that constitute but a rump of the once National Monument he Obama administration named after substantive negotiation with local stake-holders, reveal the dangerously unconsidered course by which protected public lands stand to be declassified in order to meet the demands of private industries, many of whom have already mapped mineral deposits or previously leased mines in their ground. Zinke tweeted images of how he rode to his first day as Secretary on Interior on a horse named Tonto, sporting a ten gallon hat, flanked by the US Park Police, in a coded gesture to fulfill the demands of farmers and outdoorsmen: the self-designated cowboy of Trump’s cabinet was on his way to eliminate protected status of federal lands, ready to remap most delicate open areas for extractive industries and the environmentally toxic mining and drilling of fossil fuels, in the name of energy independence: if intended to evoke Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the outdoors, the dark garb and black hat suggested apt funereal garb to preside over the dismemberment of the American West. But the usurpation of an identity as a cowboy outdoorsman in which Zinke has cultivated seems an apt metaphor, if unintentional, for the disenfranchisement of native inhabitants of a land that has been hold sacred for generations, and is a priceless repository for cultural artifacts and prehistoric ruins, as well as a priceless fossil record of dinosaur bones.
Zinc’s cultivation of the image of a cowboy outdoorsman who loves western open lands exemplifies a dangerous sort of double-dealing. For his policies he adopts run rampant over protection of the most fragile federal lands. And despite presenting a public face of affection for the outdoors concealing the agenda of energy industries to shift the landscape of the American West, the re-dimensioning of public lands and National Monuments opens them to coal industries and petroleum and uranium mining.