Trump’s transaction politics driving decision on Utah national monument
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By Paul Van Dam

President Trump is considering a plan to eliminate or significantly shrink the newly created Bears Ears National Monument. If he does, President Trump — who prides himself as a dealmaker — would be undermining America’s national heritage for little more than short-sighted politics.

The Bears Ears region, which has among the highest densities of Native American archaeological and cultural sites in the United States, was first proposed for protection in the 1930s. After decades of efforts, the region was finally protected by President Obama with the support of a majority of Utahns and five sovereign tribal nations with strong historical, spiritual and cultural ties to these public lands. Like the Grand Canyon, Arches, and Acadia national parks, Bears Ears National Monument was protected with a law called the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the ability to protect American public lands from development. 

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Eliminating Bears Ears would be an unprecedented decision that would trigger serious legal challenges and cement President Trump’s legacy as the most anti-conservation president in American history. It would set a dangerous precedent, enabling this and future presidents to alter or eliminate America’s protected public lands on a whim or at the behest of partisan political delegations or special interests like oil, gas, coal or uranium mining companies. It might endanger all national monuments in the U.S.

 

Why might the administration make such a controversial move that is far out of step with Trump’s own rhetoric? Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have prided themselves in bucking today’s Republican orthodoxy on public lands and conservation.

In one of the first speeches he made after the election, Trump promised to honor President Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy — the father of America’s national parks and forests — by conserving America’s “beautiful natural resources for the next generation.” Utah, undeniably, is home to some of these spectacular public lands, with Bears Ears National Monument near the top of the list.

With no reasonable rationale to eliminate Bears Ears, we are left only to speculate: What is in it for Trump? And, just how bad of a deal is the president willing to make?

During Trump’s first months in office we have learned that he is not beholden to any single policy position, but rather views his decision-making through the lens of a business transaction. With this in mind, there are a number of transactions that might be motivating the president to undermine Bears Ears.

Trump may consider eliminating Bears Ears at the behest of his allies in the extraction industry, some of the president’s most ardent supporters. The monument has high potential for oil, gas, and uranium development; Trump has already voiced strong interest in propping up drilling and mining companies.

The second potential transaction might be with his core constituents who hunger to undermine Obama’s legacy — a salve for their dislike of the former president. Trump has made no qualms about performing public retributions against his enemies, so his anti-conservation agenda could be driven by a desire to undermine the successes of Obama.

Finally, Trump could be transacting with Utah’s own congressional delegation. The state’s two senators and four representatives are unapologetic opponents of Bears Ears. Trump might decide it is in his interest to eliminate the monument at their request — even in the face of controversy and lawsuits — in exchange for the Utah delegation’s ongoing support of the president’s agenda. Unlike many deep-red states across the country, Trump has never been terribly popular in Utah. If Utah politicians decided it was in their interest to abandon the president — or ramp up oversight of the White House — ­it could deeply wound his agenda.

While we may never know Trump’s true motivations, there’s no legitimate reason for him to try to erase Bears Ears from the map. Eliminating the monument would not be in the best interest of the American people, Native American tribes or his own presidential legacy.

 

Paul Van Dam is the former Salt Lake County District Attorney and served as Utah Attorney General from 1989 through 1993. He is retired and lives in southern Utah.


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