Ancestral Puebloan ruin within the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument
After threats and rumblings about Utah’s public lands policies for years, a vanguard of outdoor retailers issued a Valentine’s Day ultimatum: “Agree with us or else.” Just two days later, the Outdoor Retailers (OR) announced that they would not return to Utah after the show’s contract expires in 2018 — a hair-trigger response that seems to confirm they never intended to engage in serious dialog in the first place.
In doing so, they removed themselves entirely from the debate over public lands in Utah. Perhaps that’s for the best if their approach to dialog means embracing over-simplified narratives and a perverse kind of public policy hostage taking: “Do what we want, or we’ll kill the hostage,” which in this instance is the many small businesses that depend on the biannual show.
Why such a drastic step? In the name of protecting public lands, says OR, and the public’s access to those lands. Ironically, however, few Utahns — from the governor on down — would argue with either goal. To cries of, “Keep public lands in public hands,” the vast majority of Utahns would answer, “Amen!”
Like so many who live here, I love our public lands. I’ve slithered through slot canyons, thrilled at the cry of the canyon wren and seen up close thousand-year-old fingerprints pressed into adobe walls — experiences no museum can replicate. My family and I have crisscrossed the state, including many of the spectacular natural areas that fall within the Bears Ears National Monument. We treasure those places and spaces, the kind that draw tourists from all over the world who seek the singular outdoor experiences to be found here — experiences that fuel the OR industry so determined to leave.
The trouble is that OR conflates support for public lands with support for top-down, coercive policies that often disregard meaningful local involvement or the need to balance environmental stewardship with legitimate needs for energy and rural economic development.
Energy jobs in Utah pay nearly double the average wage and, in rural areas like San Juan County, provide desperately needed income, tax revenue and social stability. Little wonder that many in those areas greet federal actions that limit or restrict those opportunities with resentment and outright hostility. Tourism and recreation create jobs, too, but often minimum-wage and seasonal ones. In reality, we need both, but that bespeaks a balance lost in OR’s strident condemnation of anything short of unequivocal support for a range of coercive and unilateral federal actions.
Can’t one believe in protecting Bears Ears but think that protection is best accomplished in ways that don’t involve expansive use of the Antiquities Act? That some of these places may need less publicity rather than more? That a push for some state control — or at least more effective state involvement — does not mean selling off our collective birthright to the highest bidder?
Apparently not, to OR’s way of thinking, which is why their voice won’t be missed. Shrilly condemning others or attempting to punish them without first trying to understand their perspective represents politics at its ugliest and worst.
Finally, the concept of “multiple use” isn’t just a slogan or a smoke-screen for efforts to degrade the environment. It’s an ethic woven into this landscape for millennia, an ethic we all participate in whether we want to or not. After all, the climbers, hikers and bikers in Utah who sport OR apparel and use OR gear will almost certainly traverse roads blazed by miners and loggers, driving cars run on oil drilled from deep beneath the red rock and, at the end of a long day, dine on beef reared on public lands.
The stark choice between protecting public lands and supporting policies that would destroy everything we hold dear is a false one. The question isn’t whether we protect these lands, but rather how we do so, and an honest dialogue on that score remains key to our future.
The OR show may leave the state, but its customers won’t. They’ll be drawn back again and again to these landscapes that beckon them, raw and wild, and to a state that remains heavily invested in protecting and promoting access to public lands.
Note: This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune on Feb 21, 2017