Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander, is touring Utah this week in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order calling for a review of national monument designations over the past 21 years. There will be many who want to get in the secretary’s ear as he visits the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante areas. I hope he can shun and shut out the strident and vitriolic voices in order to truly listen to and hear all the parties who have something constructive to say.
Zinke will need to rely on the training and leadership lessons of the SEAL teams he once led to navigate an issue that is deep and divisive, complex and infested with confusing rhetoric and an abundance of loud voices. Of late, the national monument issue has become filled with fictional claims and fraught with false choices. SEAL team members are known for their ability to drop into hostile environments, assess the situation and then act in the best interest of the country. Those skills will be priceless for his time here in Utah.
I hope the secretary brought his Navy SEAL Trident badge with him to remind him of what to do and how to act in dangerous or high-stakes circumstances. The Trident badge is unique in the military. Normally, the eagle is placed on military decorations with its head held high. On the Navy SEAL badge, however, the eagle's head is lowered to remind each SEAL team member that humility is the true measure of a warrior's strength. Zinke understands that humility is not weakness and there is real power in listening.
I remember attending a dinner meeting for new members of Congress when Zinke was a newly elected congressman from Montana. He arrived with many of the other freshmen, but it was easy to tell he was different from his new congressional colleagues. He had a quiet confidence about him. I sensed he knew exactly why he was there and what his mission was going to be as a representative. I watched him throughout the evening. Many of the other people in the room seemed obsessed with getting a word in, making a point, sounding smart, dropping names and talking about how they won their elections. Zinke didn’t just listen; he listened intently and was one of only two people in the room taking notes. He said little, which actually spoke volumes about him as a leader. He asked a lot of questions instead of making statements. When he finally commented on an issue, it was clearly thought out and it concluded with a call to action.
I suspect that everyone, on all sides of the Bears Ears issue, will walk away feeling heard and understood this week.
I hope the secretary will lead the discussion this week to issues such as: 1. What do the people whose lives and livelihoods are dependent upon the Bears Ears area think about the monument designation? 2. Does the Antiquities Act’s “smallest area possible” necessary to preserve and protect antiquities really require 1.3 million acres? 3. How multiple use and local input can transcend the all-or-nothing false choices of conserving land or unchecked commercialization. (There really won’t be an oil rig on top of Bears Ears or under Delicate Arch.) 4. How the Native American tribes who live in San Juan County (not national tribal groups) and the other local citizens (not from the Wasatch Front or the rest of the nation) feel about the monument designation and its impact on their lives and futures. 5. Is a presidential declaration the right process for national monuments? Local and state input is critical to ensuring that national monuments preserve antiquities and empower local communities.
I believe what happens in Utah this week will lead to an important dialogue across the country and in Congress about the president, of either party, having the power to declare such vast monuments. Trump’s executive order could be a rarity in that it actually reduces or limits executive branch power. That would be a welcome change. Restoring power to the people’s representatives and ultimately to the people is vital for the people of Utah, and especially those in San Juan County.
Zinke’s visit is important to Utah and to the nation. His Navy SEALs training will come in most handy. As he hears from big business, big government and big environmental groups, I hope he also remembers his Navy SEAL ethos to “humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans, always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves.”
And then I hope he remembers that a wealthy man’s playground should never come at the expense of a working man’s dream.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.