30 November 2018

Fighting the “Commodification of the Commons” (2)

Written by 
“In this Dec. 2, 2017, photo, a supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments wears a colorful headdress during a rally against President Trump's reduction of two National Monuments in Salt Lake City. President Donald Trump's rare move to shrink two large national monuments in Utah triggered another round of outrage among Native American leaders who vowed to unite and take the fight to court to preserve protections for lands they consider sacred.” (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) “In this Dec. 2, 2017, photo, a supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments wears a colorful headdress during a rally against President Trump's reduction of two National Monuments in Salt Lake City. President Donald Trump's rare move to shrink two large national monuments in Utah triggered another round of outrage among Native American leaders who vowed to unite and take the fight to court to preserve protections for lands they consider sacred.” (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) https://religionnews.com/2018/08/14/why-native-americans-struggle-to-protect-their-sacred-places/

On the cover of the November 2018 issue of National Geographic is a rancher on his horse illuminated by a setting sun against the backdrop of dark clouds. Speaking of the Bears Ears landscape, he says, “It’s a diverse, iconic, some say a spiritual landscape.” The two cover articles come under the rubrick, “Battle for the American West.” The first one’s subtitle reads, “The new push to cut back protected land is fueling a dispute rooted in our history and culture.”

The two articles’ author, Hannah Nordhaus, characterizes in these terms the reactions to the Trump’s executive order – reactions which are all predictable, as they fall along a well-worn path of conflict in our nation:


“Drillers and miners, loggers and ranchers, face off against hikers and bikers, climbers and conservationists. It’s the Old West versus the New; the people whose livelihoods depend on extracting resources from the land versus those who visit and the businesses that serve them – and at Bears Ears, the Native Americans who were there first.”


We will get to this, but I first want to examine a particularly fascinating and instructive case study written by David Gessner for the Sept./Oct. issue of the Sierra Club magazine. The title is simple, “Land Grab,” and the first part is about what led to President Obama declaring in his last month in office the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.


The Story of Bears Ears National Monument

Land conservation and the national park movement in this country began with President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 bill creating Yellowstone National Park. It also got a great boost with the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 famously declaimed on the edge of the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.” He then added the following, “The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Today as then, a group of people vehemently disagrees with land conservation. They are the developers, the ranchers, the entrepreneurs, and minors. They see dollar signs, but it’s all about short-term gain – for themselves. But that battle since Roosevelt’s days has only intensified of late. Gessner, standing in America’s newest national park at the end of January 2018, could feel the intense pressure to dramatically reduce its scope. He writes,


“We have entered another one of those periods where nothing feels safe, where everything is up for grabs. And it isn’t just land that is under threat; it’s the very law that was used to save much of that land in the first place.”


That law was the 1906 “Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities,” or the "Antiquities Act" for short. Sponsored by Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa, who was a bird lover and an admirer of pre-Columbian artifacts, the Act aimed to save “historical landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest.” But it also granted the American president broad discretion to name new monuments without consulting Congress, which Roosevelt set out to do with glee as soon as it passed.

True, it was enacted mostly to keep Native American heritage sites from being looted, but Roosevelt resented the way Congress “had impeded his larger vision of protecting grand swaths of land from development.” His first successful act was to designate 800,000 acres as the Grand Canyon National Monument (later turned into the first “National Park” by Congress).

Bears Ears is exactly the kind of site John F. Lacey wanted to preserve – an area sparsely populated but full of cultural and religious significance for Native Americans. In fact, a few years back a Navaho group calling itself Utah Diné Bikéyah (“people’s sacred land”) started to survey and map the Bears Ears region (named after its twin buttes seen from miles around). They documented over 100,000 Native American sites and successfully secured the collaboration of four other Nations. Together they joined to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (Navaho, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute).

It may sound like a romantic Kumbaya moment, but in fact several of these tribes had been in the process of suing one another over land and water issues. Yet, however intense and angry some of those first meetings were, a consensus soon emerged as they began to see a dramatic victory for Native rights on the horizon. Gressner managed to interview the woman who almost single-handedly made it happen. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a councilwoman of the Ute Mountain Ute nation, ably led the charge, commanding the respect of the tribes and of the various environmental groups now throwing in their weight. She then was delegated to represent them all in Washington, speaking to Congress and meeting personally with President Obama.

Naturally, after President Obama's proclamation of the Monument, Lopez-Whiteskunk was elated, “I was being taken seriously and being part of the conversation and lending my Indigenous knowledge and expertise. I really felt a part of the country. A part of the democratic process.” But tribes far beyond the Bears Ears coalition rejoiced as well. As Gessner puts it, “For the first time, traditional knowledge and a Native view of the land would be integrated into a national monument from its inception.”


The Empire Strikes Back

No, this isn’t Star Wars, but if you mean by “empire” the constellation of business interests within the energy industry, then parallels pop up immediately. Before David Gessner left the Grand Canyon to head out to Bears Ears, he decided to see Canyon Mine for himself, just ten miles southeast of the Tusayan entrance. A Canadian company called Energy Fuels owns and runs the enterprise. As he was driving there, Gessner spotted a number of “the failed uranium mines on the mesa walls” in Monument Valley. Teddy Roosevelt would have pointed this out as a good example of man “marring” a pristine landscape.

Gessner was eager to visit Canyon Mine for two reasons. It’s the company that owns the only uranium mill so far in the country, Utah’s White Mesa Mill. It’s also “the same company whose executives tagged along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he toured Bears Ears in late Spring 2017, and the same company that provided Zinke with area maps detailing the 300 uranium-mining claims inside the Obama-designated monument – the very same 300 claims conveniently left outside the newly drawn boundaries.” Note too that the new EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, had worked for a time as a lobbyist for Energy Fuels. You can see where all this is going …

Clearly, the uranium industry invested considerable sums to lobby Ryan Zinke’s office in order to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Additionally, Gessner poured over publicly released emails from the Interior Department, which showed that the Bears Ears reduction was about tapping into potential gas and oil reserves and the Grand Staircase-Escalante reduction sought to exploit coal reserves. The energy industry had obviously been on high alert as soon as the results of the 2016 elections were announced.

Now back to the uranium industry. In 2010 a US Geological Survey report found that uranium mining around the Grand Canyon “had contaminated 15 springs and five wells in the region, and ... the Havasupai Tribe, which lives inside the canyon, worried that Havasupai Creek, its one source of drinking water, could be jeopardized if additional mining were to begin.” On that basis the Obama administration placed a moratorium on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area. But that is changing under the current administration.


Public lands and the Native peoples

This blog post, as it highlights the seemingly perpetual clash between the notion of common good (as in “public lands” and “nature”) and the rich barons of the energy industry, circles back to the theme announced in the first part, namely, the commodification of the commons. We saw how the movement to privatize public education was eroding the American ideals of equality – economic opportunity for all and racial reconciliation. Of course there is a place for private schools, either for religious purposes (a good thing) or for the rich to prepare their kids for the elite colleges (a concession to capitalism). But when scarce funding for public schools is diverted to the private sector, we have a “commodification of the commons” that becomes culpable and egregious.

I am arguing here that the 85% reduction of Bears Ears and 46% reduction of the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante to satisfy the greed or uranium, oil, gas, and coal magnates are equally unconscionable.

Another reason to strongly oppose the Bears Ears National Monument’s gutting, however, is that it violates the sacred land of the Native tribes. Just think, most of those 100,000 Native artifacts will again be easily looted or defaced by unscrupulous tourists and the historical compact of those five Indian Nations has been compromised. I sincerely hope that the lawsuits now threading their way through the justice system will restore these lands to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. In Gessner’s words, here’s what’s at stake:


“Listening to Lopez-Whiteskunk describe her coalition’s use of the Antiquities Act, I began to see that what had evolved in the creation of Bears Ears was not just inspiring; it was original. Here was a confluence of the Indigenous ideals of respect, worship, and knowledge of the land and the revolutionary European American notion of public lands. That latter ideal, despite its flaws, really was one of the best things this country has ever done. Now, conjoined with the work of Native peoples, it had been given new life. Imagine: a national monument where traditional knowledge directs land management, a place where ancient artifacts are considered not objects of mere archeology but living history.”


In closing I urge you to view the slideshow of those ancient petroglyphs and pictographs (images carved and painted onto rock) from some of the caves and rock faces of Bears Ears in the National Geographic article by Hannah Nordhaus. They give witness to “a succession of prehistoric cultures [which] occupied the mesas and canyons of southern Utah for more than 12,000 years.

Finally, the rich heritage of American Indigenous cultures, including their religious worldviews and practices, reminds us of the sordid history of how we dispossessed them, “ethnically cleansed” them, and continue to oppress them in more subtle ways (see my 2017 2-part blog post, “Theological Reflections on the Fourth World”). Restoring the Bears Ears National Monument would represent a small but important gesture of honoring their contribution to who we are or could be as a nation. Though we can see some positive signs of that recognition in American society today, much work remains.

Need I say this again? The Creator established us human beings as his trustees or stewards of this good earth he provided for us. To Him we will give an account. Managing natural resources wisely and equitably, setting aside large swaths of breathtakingly beautiful lands for all to enjoy, and especially in this case paying respect and honor to those who lived in harmony with this land for millennia – all this is surely a way to discharge our sacred Trust. In this sense, the “commons” are sacred and should never be casually commodified.