“Everybody's talking at me I don't hear a word they're saying ”
— Song lyrics by Fred Neil, popularized by Harry Nilsson, 1969
SALT LAKE CITY — This is what happens when you don’t require a democratic, public process: People scream at each other and call each other names, politicians demonize their opponents and valid points on various sides are reduced to caricatures. Ultimately, few people are happy with the results.
It’s safe to say Congress didn’t think of this in 1906 when it passed the Antiquities Act, giving Teddy Roosevelt, and all subsequent presidents, the power to create national monuments without congressional approval.
Lawmakers back then didn’t envision Bill Clinton creating a massive Grand Staircase-Escalante to satisfy his environmental base during a re-election campaign, or a Donald Trump reducing and chopping up existing monuments his predecessors had created.
The record shows all they worried about was finding a way for the government to be nimble enough to protect ancient artifacts from pothunters and looters. The New York Times back then said tons of relics from Utah cliff dwellings had ended up at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and later were put up for auction.
That’s hard to read, even all these years later. It’s hard to imagine what treasures were lost forever. Who wouldn’t support a fix for that?
But when fixing problems, Congress seldom imagines unintended consequences.
And the unintended is now slapping us in the face.
The only differences between this week’s presidential decree by Donald Trump to reduce the size of two national monuments and earlier ones by Clinton and Barack Obama to create larger ones is that they each enraged and satisfied different groups. Nothing was settled. The tables may have turned, but nobody is making a motion to table the issue.
A decree is not a process. And now, it turns out, it isn’t really much of a decree, either, in the sense that decrees are supposed to be permanent.
In the wake of the president’s whirlwind visit to Salt Lake City this week, the only thing all sides seem to agree on is that attorneys and judges are going to be busily employed for a long time.
Did Trump violate the Antiquities Act, or was he fixing earlier violations? The act is so vaguely worded it’s hard to imagine any judge’s decision will satisfy everyone.
Meanwhile, some of the newly enraged gathered for a protest outside the state Capitol Monday as the president spoke inside. Amid the clatter of protest songs, signs laden with F-bombs and catchy slogans about what democracy looks like, I heard a lot about wealthy corporations wanting to rape the land. I heard nothing about local farmers or ranchers trying to make a living.
But then, back when those earlier presidents were making their own decrees, I heard politicians and many others reducing their grievances to the simplest forms of argument. The need to preserve natural scenic beauty was given short shrift.
An essay earlier this year by Amnesty International on dehumanization said, “At the root of this rhetoric lies a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others.”
Cue Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire founder of the outdoor retailer Patagonia, who went on CNN after the president’s visit to call Utah’s politicians “evil.”
Evil can’t be fixed. It can’t be negotiated with. As any sci-fi or comic book fan knows, it must be uprooted.
Thanks for your helpful input, Yvon.
In a recent Deseret News report on the people most affected by all this, Jesse Hyde pointed out another unintended consequence. The monument designation, and the controversy over Trump’s recent actions, are bringing people to the Bears Ears in numbers never before seen.
When they come, they don’t find any visitor center or park rangers. With everything in limbo, Congress hasn’t provided funding for any of that. The things worth preserving are more vulnerable than ever because Congress tried to fix things more than a century ago.
While the name-calling and demonizing continues, it’s instructive to note you never hear anyone protesting, name-calling or demonizing over sensitive lands in Washington County. That’s because former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett brokered a deal there in 2009 that protected 256,000 acres from development and let commercial interests have up to 9,000 acres to build in the growing St. George area.
That’s what a public process looks like.
It’s also why, unless Congress changes the Antiquities Act, 2009 seems like a lot longer ago than 1906.