While the grim and still-strong lingerings of slavery and Jim Crow animate much of the modern conservative movement, it also drew enormous energy from the Sagebrush Rebellions of the 70s, when western ranchers and farmers started “standing up” to an overbearing federal government who didn’t want them to destroy the land. It was this, dovetailing with Buckley’s ideas of conservative politics, that allowed Ronald Reagan to win by saying “government is the problem”; something that Richard Nixon wouldn’t even think, much less say out loud. It’s not very well-known now, but its spirit is still around.
You see the spirit of Sagebrush in most Republican policies, which is that the there is no common good. It’s what makes the idea that corporations should be able to do whatever they want to whomever they want seem somehow principled, and even patriotic. But you also see it literally, in the actions of the Bundys, direct descendants of the movement. And you see it in the actions of the Trump administration, run by a man who never saw anything he didn’t want to sell.
We talked about how the administration was planning to sell off public lands to be developed or mined or logged or stripped clean (the cruel quintessence of the GOP), but now they are paving the way to make it actually happen. Adam Markham at the Union of Concerned Scientists has the details.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president of the United States the power to designate lands and waters for permanent protection. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Act to place extraordinary archaeological, historic and natural sites under protection and out of reach of commercial exploitation.
Many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Saguaro and Death Valley. In many cases in the past, the Antiquities Act allowed presidents to protect vital natural and cultural resources when congressional leaders, often compromised by their ties to special interests representing coal, oil, timber and mining industries, were reluctant or unwilling to act.
A new Executive Order signed by President Trump on April 26th, 2017 puts this important regulatory tool for conservation and historic preservation at risk. The clear intention of the Executive Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for untrammeled growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction.
Ryan Zinke, who this blog once made the mistake of calling “maybe not terrible“, is all in on this. Markham slaps him down.
Secretary Zinke himself was quoted ridiculing “people in D.C. who have never been to an area, never grazed the land, fished the river, driven the trails, or looked locals in the eye, who are making the decisions and they have zero accountability to the impacted communities.”
But, in fact, national monument designations almost always derive from a local grassroots demand for greater protections, and usually only come after lengthy periods of community engagement and consultations.
Because here’s the thing. In Zinke’s list, “graz(ing) the land” is the only thing that people will still be able to do. Maybe fish the rivers, if you buy commercial fishing rights. People can walk or drive the trails and visit the areas because they are protected. What do you think–if a mining company buys rights to land in Bear Ears they’re going to just let you waltz in?
Or course not. If you let rich ranchers like the Bundys take over more land, it is, by definition, no longer the people’s land. Go ahead. Walk onto Bundy property. They aren’t going to greet you with a Woodie Guthrie song.
Public designations are how we protect these lands for everyone. It’s how we protect our heritage. It’s a way of saying that not everything can or should be parceled off, exploited, turned into capital, and sold to benefit the very few. Because of that, it is anethema to the modern Republican Party. That this move is an immediate screw you to natives is just a bonus). Bear Ears didn’t
(Bear Ears didn’t create an idiotic Chaffetz controversy for no reason: it’s because Obama designating it a park became a cause celebre to the heirs of Sagebrush.)
I guarantee you that Trump has never heard of Sagebrush, and I doubt he has any strong ideological reasons for selling off the land, unless he gets a taste. But he hates things that Obama did, and his animating principle has always been “I got mine, so screw you.” In that, as in so many things, he is the perfect Republican. He is ready to sell, and our national sense of unity and a common good is paying the price.