In a landmark proclamation on December 4, President Trump slashed the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 85 percent and 46 percent, respectively. This, in spite of the fact that 80 percent of commenters solicited in the review process opposed shrinkage, sparking a dearth of outrage at the intractability with which one man can impose his will upon public land.
Unlike previous uses of the Antiquities Act, Trump has given no credence to the public will with respect to his decision. He did not even consult with Native American tribes, even though it is their heritage that hangs in the balance. He ignored the comments solicited in the review process, and he bypassed the local eco-tourism industry, which is now in full-scale uproar.
Trump defended his decision by saying, “I called all of my friends in Utah and asked them … they said this would be incredible for our country.” Said “friends” included Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, who stands to make millions from the opening of previously protected lands to cattle grazing, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has received more than $470,000 from oil, gas and coal interests since 2012 , both of whom have thanked President Trump fawningly for his largesse.
But thanks have not come from the people of Utah. Thousands filled the streets of Salt Lake City on Monday, December 4, 2017, telling the president, “Keep your tiny hands off our public lands,” and waving banners that read, “We stand on stolen land.” Navajo President Russell Begaye condemned the shrinkage as the latest in a series of dispossessions that have cost “millions of acres of my people’s land.” Conservationists have joined the tribes in suing Trump for the proclamations.
The people of Utah are well aware of the capital intensity of the fracking, mining and cattle industries that will crowd out eco-tourism over the next few years. They know that fracking, for instance, creates a pitiful 6.5 jobs per $1 million invested in the industry. They have no illusions about the fact that Native Americans, who make up 70 percent of the people in poverty in San Juan County, Utah, will be the last hired for and the first fired. The people of Utah, and indeed of this nation, know precisely where the resource rents engendered by these proclamations will go: to the yacht purchases of cattlemen, the clubbing carouses of frackers and the first-class tickets of senators headed to scenic natural wonders that have yet to be eviscerated.
Sadly, cynical privatizations of public lands are a well-worn motif. The English Enclosure Acts of the 17th century, ostensibly a technocratic fix for inefficacious farming practices, was in fact a fire-sale of commonly-owned land, that enriched landowners at the expense of the dispossessed peasantry. Indonesia’s President Suharto (in)famously amassed an egregious $15-35 billion by selling off “protected forests” ad libitum to cronies, friends and family members. And Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz notes that in the case of Russia, natural resources that would have provided income for future generations, were sold for a pittance to enrich a few dissolute oligarchs in the present: “Before, [they] could only steal the annual flow … [but if they] privatized, [they could] sell the present discounted value … going for the next ump-teen years into the future.”
The danger posed by such sleights of hand cannot be understated in the era of climate change. A 2005 study found that “current annual rates of tropical deforestation from Brazil and Indonesia alone would equal four-fifths of the emissions reductions gained by implementing the Kyoto Protocol in its first commitment period.” Selling off protected lands to logging interests has done immense environmental harm, and Trump’s shrinkage of National Monuments threatens to do the same.
His proclamations have opened the door to cattle ranchers, who intend to move in with the greatest expediency. The belches and burps of our four-legged friends are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, trucks, ships, planes and trains combined. Meanwhile, methane — the primary emission of concern to the climate — is 23 times more potent than C02.
Neither are mining or fracking conducive to a livable planet for future generations. Fracking’s record is well known, with groundwater contamination, methane leaks and greenhouse gas emissions being staples of its climate change rap-sheet. Mining stakes its claim as one of the least climate-friendly human activities on the planet with acid mine drainage, waste disposal and particulate expulsion. And both industries are colossal downgrades from the queen of climate friendly industries; eco-tourism.
The real threat — and indeed insult, as Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez put it — manifest in the Trump proclamations is one of cynicism being played on credulity. The Trump administration is trying to disguise clientelism as “populism” by dangling the specter of “distant bureaucrats” and the carrot of mining jobs in front of the American people. The manifestation of such a state of affairs in the 21st century US would not only be a disastrous setback in the political evolution of humankind, but could very well turn climate change from “the biggest collective action problem in history” to “the last collective action problem in human history.”