Bears Ears puts Utah at forefront of Western battle for lands

Updated December 3, 2017 - 9:14 pm

DENVER — In an American West that has a love-hate relationship with the federal government’s ownership of a checkerboard of parks, monuments, forest and desert in states from Washington to New Mexico, Utah stands out.

The state has gone well beyond any other in the region in trying to pry the federal government’s hands off land it sees as belonging to its residents.

In 2012, its Legislature passed a law demanding the federal government give 30 million acres of the land it owns in Utah to the state government — a measure other Western states have balked at replicating, even deeply conservative ones like Idaho.

Earlier this year, a Utah congressman introduced a bill to sell more than 4,600 square miles of Western federal land to private entities but pulled it after a backlash. And on Monday, President Donald Trump is expected to announce he’s significantly reducing the size of two national monuments in southern Utah, the first such act by a president in half a century.

“Utah’s certainly on the tip of the spear,” said state Rep. Mike Noel, who represents south-central Utah, where some residents have fought to shrink or eliminate Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument since President Bill Clinton created it in 1996.

Polls have repeatedly shown Westerners cherish national monuments and other protected federal land — even in Utah — but the state’s political leaders have been united in celebrating Trump’s expected move.

The president’s decision has already sparked protests. On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators holding signs with messages like “Protect Wild Utah” converged on the steps of the Utah State Capitol.

The president is considering changes to other Western monuments as well, as recommended by his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke. But no state has been agitating for reductions like Utah. In a telling move, at the same time Zinke recommended the Utah shrinkage, he urged the creation of a new national monument in his conservative home state of Montana, where he’s believed to harbor political ambitions.

“There’s nothing in our data that’d say, politically, that this is popular,” said Lori Weigel, a Republican pollster in Denver, said of efforts to trim monuments. Weigel has done surveys on Western land conservation for years, including recent ones for supporters of the monuments that found Utah voters back them by a 2-1 margin.

“I can’t say why Utah elected officials have taken this on more than in other states,” she said. “But we see widespread recognition that designation of protected land is valued.”

The reasons range from geography to politics to Utah’s unique Mormon history and culture.

Even Utah’s sharpest critics of federal land bristle at the notion that they are against conservation. They say they treasure the state’s five national parks, many national forests and even some of its monuments.

The state itself conserves lands in expansive state parks, they add, and would protect its scenic treasures. But the nearly 3,000-square-mile Grand Staircase and the 2,000-square-mile Bears Ears National Monument that President Obama created last year in the southeast part of the state are simply too intrusive on local communities and ranchers, they argue, and too much of the state is locked up by the federal government and barred from energy development. Washington, D.C., owns two-thirds of Utah’s land, a greater percentage than in any other state in the lower 48 other than Nevada.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has urged the administration to trim the boundaries of Gold Butte, said he was not aware that the president would announce a decision on the Nevada monument while in Utah.

“If you live in Colorado, you live in Arizona, you are not dealing with the federal lands that we are,” state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said.

Like much of the West, Utah is actually a very urban state. All that protected — and arid — land means most residents pack into the fast-growing corridor between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch mountains, in the northern part of the state near Salt Lake City.

But unlike other heavily urban Western states such as Nevada that are destinations for transplants from across the country, many of Utah’s urbanites — especially the politically active ones — are descendants of its rural areas who are more sensitive to complaints from people like Rep. Noel.

“Every single one of the people in that Legislature, they have a connection to rural Utah,” said Noel, an avid birder and former employee of the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that oversees some 386,000 square miles across the West.

A poll released last week indicated most Utahns “strongly” or “somewhat” support Trump’s actions.

Also, until the Legislature changed the law in 2014, Utah’s political parties mostly chose their candidates at party gatherings. Since Republicans are virtually guaranteed to win elections in most of the state, that system allowed a tiny handful of dedicated activists to gain outsize weight in selecting elected officials.

Finally, there is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion that makes Utah unlike any other state. It was founded in the 19th century by Mormons who fled massacres in the Midwest and were desperate to have a land they could call their own — and to control their economic destiny, said Mathew Bowman, author of a history of the faith called “The Mormon People.”

“There was a desire for Mormons to be economically independent and self-sufficient,” Bowman said. “A lot of the prominent Mormon leaders of the early 20th century came out of this.”

Even now, he added, that legacy lingers. “These ideas aren’t very personal, but they’ve been floating around in the atmosphere here.” Today, as much as two-thirds of the state’s 3 million residents are Mormons, including many state lawmakers and Utah’s entire congressional delegation.

Sometimes extremists seize on the LDS connection. The Bundy family of Nevada ranchers, who brandished guns during a standoff with BLM agents in rural Nevada in 2014 and last year helped seize an Oregon wildlife refuge, identify as Mormon and have sometimes pointed to scripture to justify their actions. But the Mormon church condemned their takeover of the refuge, and even some LDS members frustrated with federal control of Western lands have expressed revulsion at the family’s actions.

Ken Ivory, a state lawmaker from suburban Salt Lake City who has led the campaign to get other states to try to take over federal land, acknowledges Utah’s religious tradition is a factor in its desire to take care of its terrain.

“Self-reliance is something ingrained in our lives,” Ivory said.

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