As a Utah native, I often have to explain to people how it is that Utah has five national parks, eight national monuments, two huge national recreation areas, incredible national forests, fine raging rivers, resource-rich BLM lands, and the least good elected officials in the West. Maybe not the worst . . . but the least good. As proof let’s look at the recent Outdoor Retailer convention debacle.
For twenty years, the Outdoor Retailer trade group formed Utah’s largest convention, meeting twice a year in Salt Lake City. The convention brought $45 million in revenue annually, and there was talk of adding three more yearly trade shows.
Outdoor industry leaders understand that they are dependent on access to public land. Utah’s greatest draws are the national parks, monuments, and ski resorts. Tourism is worth $8.3 billion a year to the Beehive State, and in several rural counties, it is the most important industry. After all, 66.5% of Utah is public land.
For a variety of reasons, some Utahans don’t like federal control, which is seen as heavy-handed and promulgated by outsiders. Thus, when a coalition of several Native American tribes—Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Uintah Ouray Ute, in concert with environmental groups and local residents—urged President Obama to create a new national monument called Bears Ears, Utah’s elected officials opposed it. Riding an us-against-them wagon, these politicians fanned the flames of local resentment, flames that hardly needed stoking.
The three main arguments against monument designation are demonstrably false. These arguments are that Bears Ears (and Grand Staircase-Escalante, declared in 1996) has no local support, that national monuments destroy the local economy, and that using the Antiquities Act (previously used a dozen times by presidents from both parties) constitutes federal overreach.
“National Monuments,” a chapter in my recent book Good Water, refutes the first two claims. Yes, there is much support for new national monuments locally, regionally, and nationally, and national monument designation has provided significant economic stimulus for gateway communities.
President Obama waited several years for Utah’s elected officials to come up with a meaningful counter-proposal to protect the Bears Ears trove of archeological and sacred sites. Representatives Bishop and Chaffetz unveiled the Public Lands Initiative, but it was unbalanced, favoring development and drilling over conservation.
Thus, near the end of his second term, and with the prospect of a new regime on the horizon, President Obama invoked the Antiquities Act and declared the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears area a national monument. Members of the tribal coalition and twenty-five other tribal groups, other rural (and urban) Utahans, and many various and sundry cheered.
Utah’s elected officials pouted. They threatened to sue the federal government. They threatened to try to get rid of the Antiquities Act. The state legislature passed resolutions, and the congressional delegation has introduced legislation asking the new president to exercise some federal overreach himself and void the Bears Ears declaration (something that has never been done) and decrease the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante (something that has never been done on this scale). Governor Gary Herbert has gone along, signing bills, jingling spurs, and holding hankies.
In 1996 when President Clinton declared Grand Staircase-Escalante, there wasn’t much support from the business community. With Bears Ears things have changed. Some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry—Black Diamond, Patagonia, Arc'teryx, REI, North Face, Rossignol, and Petzl—took a stand.
Their demand was simple: knock this silliness off or we will move our big convention elsewhere. In other words, leave Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante alone and stop trying to sell public land to somebody’s brother-in-law or give control to the state.
But the governor, the state legislature, and the congressional delegation wouldn’t budge. Nope, they were going to show those gosh-dang outsiders. It was their way or the highway.
The outdoor retailers weren’t bluffing. Following some fraught negotiation, they decided to say adios and move the trade show to some place more supportive of protecting public land. They have also taken to the airwaves and print media in support of Bears Ears.
The elected officials then went on a trumped-up rant about how much they love the land and want to protect it, too. Only trouble is, nobody is buying it. Their words and deeds don’t line up. Instead, this anti-federal, anti-preservation stand will cost the state millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they’ve been trying to curry favor with the new administration to undo the legacies of Clinton and Obama. As far as the landscape and future of southern Utah goes, that’s the worst thing that could be done.
Other western states have been quick to stake a claim to the Outdoor Retailer bonanza. A Colorado advocacy group touted their state’s “stronger beer, taller peaks, higher recreation, and love for public land.”
Someday, perhaps, Utah’s elected officials will learn what they say in Colorado today: “Protecting public lands is just good business.” Until then, they win the least good prize.
Kevin Holdsworth is the author of Big Wonderful: Notes from Wyoming and Good Water. His work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including Cimarron Review, Post Road, Creative Nonfiction, and Denver University Law Review. In 2009 he was awarded the Wyoming Arts Council creative writing fellowship for fiction. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and son, Chris, in south-central and southern Utah.