When Rep. Bishop first set out to craft the Public Lands Initiative, I truly believe he was seeking a real and fair compromise between the multitudes of stakeholders who care about Utah’s singular public lands. It’s true that in the beginning many of us spent hours with his staff poring over maps, hammering out minutia and painstakingly making small breakthroughs. But along the way, an unreachable faction, lost in a reverie about a state perpetually on the cusp of the mother lode, began to drown out those of us who know we’ve already hit it, and that our riches lay in the preservation of the land itself.
The result is not a bill that’s a compromise, but rather one that compromises everything. Even if we strip away the unfathomable provisions that give the state of Utah authority over regulating mineral development on federal lands, even if we disregard the companion legislation that creates an Antiquities Act (national monument) exemption in all counties in the PLI, even if we set aside the fact that the PLI does not come close to achieving adequate protection for the Bears Ears region, there is still this: the foundation of the bill rolls back existing protections for Utah’s deserving BLM wilderness. On the ground, this means more than 100,000 acres less will be protected under the PLI than are currently protected right now, today, while you read this.
It is such a missed opportunity. But it is not good vs. evil or bad intentions that got us here. Rather, it is merely a lapse in courage, a shortage of imagination — plain old pessimism and inertia. And what a shame, because that is so unlike our great state.
Utahns, by nature, are a bold and optimistic people. When the pioneers set off into the unknown West to flee persecution, they did it knowing that things no longer were the way they had always been — that the way forward was going to have to be a new way.
When the first Utahns were in turn persecuted — forced from their homes at gunpoint, their children kidnapped and their cultures bleached, they somehow responded with resilience. The Navajo Code Talkers used the language we tried to wrest from them to help us win World War II. We, unfortunately, responded by not letting them vote in Utah until 1957. And yet today, five tribes come together in an unprecedented union to ask the president to help preserve the Bears Ears, a place of great importance to them, as a national monument. That’s boldness. And optimism.
We as Utahns should not only embrace this request, but cheer it on. It is a chance to begin reparations for the imperial oppression and disenfranchisement we’ve imposed on the tribes for so long. It is an opportunity to hear their stories and see the land through their eyes. It’s likely we will learn that these places are important to all of us, and understand them more deeply than we ever have.
Optimism and boldness are really the drivers of the conservation ethic. Behind the idea of protecting wilderness is not a desire to keep people out; it’s that we want to invite people out, really out, to see true nature (and perhaps their own true nature). It’s that we know we are lucky to still have these wild places. We are rich enough to not have to pawn our grandfather’s watch or our mother’s cedar chest, and instead make the conscious decision to keep them. It is confidently saying yes, we have enough to not waste everything.
This great abundance, and our opportunity to protect it so that it endures well into the future, should be the pride of all Utahns. We have the power to join hands around our amazing wilderness, so that when the next groups of Utahns arrive — be they grandchildren, or a new wave of optimistic immigrants — they, too, can join us in celebrating our bounty. How lucky are we as Utahns, and as Americans?
The PLI is a missed opportunity. But right around the corner is the next one: the Bears Ears National Monument. Be bold, Utah! Answer when it knocks.
Jen Ujifusa grew up in the Ogden Valley and roamed all over Utah’s wilderness with her parents. She is the legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.