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Don’t speak for Westerners when exploiting public lands

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There is a long history of myths about the economic potential of the western United States, from legendary lost Cities of Gold to a new Eden, abundant paradises of good fortune out there for the taking. 

In the 1800s, slick-talking land promoters tried to create a fool’s paradise in which rain would follow the plow, the desert would bloom with crops and livestock bred in the rainy climes of northern Europe would thrive on arid western rangelands. Mining promoters salted barren claims with diamonds or gold nuggets, then made small fortunes on mines that never produced, leaving their stockholders swindled. Whether outright lies or misplaced optimism, clearly these promises of riches were overstated.  

{mosads}Today’s snake-oil peddlers are the commercial and industrial interests who make their profits by exploiting public lands. They have continued the tradition of misrepresentation, claiming to speak for “westerners” with their anti-conservation, pro-exploitation views about opening up America’s treasured landscapes. They have built a good-old-boy network to help them continue the longest-running con job the West has ever seen, selling the destruction of the West and the elimination or despoliation of our nation’s public lands as mere collateral damage in their own get-rich-quick schemes. If they succeed, the landowners — every American citizen, and particularly those who love the West and its wide-open spaces and abundant wildlife — stand to come out the losers.


Industry likes to overstate its economic significance as a way of strong-arming citizens into giving them what they want. For example, the livestock industry has been an economic afterthought for decades now, but an outsized sense of self-importance sometimes fools even lawmakers. Just last week, a former Idaho legislator went to great lengths to paint ranching as the linchpin of the state’s economy, even though the latest independent analysis shows that ranching and aquaculture combined comprise only 1.8 percent of Idaho’s employment.

The same yawning gap between perception and reality holds for sage-grouse. Politicians say, “Nobody wants to see the sage-grouse protected under the Endangered Species Act,” and sometimes careless journalists even report this right-wing talking point as if it is fact. But even in Wyoming, thought to be a bastion of opposition to federal regulations, 52 percent of voters polled in 2014 said they would support endangered species protections for sage grouse. A year later, a nationwide poll found that 90 percent of Americans and 89 percent of westerners support the Endangered Species Act.

The same is true for the Gunnison sage grouse of western Colorado, for which a 2004 poll by Western State College in Gunnison showed that two-thirds of western Colorado residents thought the bird should be listed. The reality is that industry doesn’t want to see endangered species protection for sage-grouse, and their racket of opposition is unduly amplified by good-old-boy networks. 

Thus the tiny minority with deeply vested economic interests in exploiting public land seems to speak on behalf of a general public whose interests are damaged by these same commercial uses, and the tail wags the dog.

To advance this agenda, the Koch brothers created lobbying groups to seemingly fake a grassroots groundswell to get rid of western public lands, but only managed to produce pathetic, off-color astroturf. Their partnership with the Bundy militants to seize western public lands and hand them over to the states fizzled out amid angry crowds of locals defending public lands and access at congressional town halls and legislature hearings from Utah to Wyoming

When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke embarked upon the widely controversial “review” of Bears Ears and other National Monuments with an eye toward shrinking or eliminating them, he traveled to Utah to “listen to the public.” A public rally was held in Grand Staircase – Escalante NM gateway of Kanab, but Zinke refused to meet with the locals. A media junket in Blanding was invitation-only, where Native American representatives were rudely rebuffed.

The public response on Bears Ears has been decisive: More than 2.8 million public comments, 99.2 percent of which supported leaving the current National Monuments alone. Specifically, an independent poll of Utahns found that residents supported keeping the Monument unaltered by a 47-to-32 percent margin. 

To date, Zinke appears to be ignoring the public, the tribes and his self-professed admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, instead appears taking his marching orders from a select few good-old-boys who represent the demographically tiny but incessantly vocal opposition to protecting Bears Ears and its spectacular array of fragile cliff dwellings.

Sometimes the veil of deception is very thin indeed. In Colorado, the oil industry recently launched a paid TV ad, hiring a couple of former Colorado governors to push the counterfactual claim that burning natural gas will somehow improve climate change, and to tout “some of the toughest regulations and enforcement you’ll find anywhere.” Tragically, the “toughest regulations and enforcement” weren’t enough to prevent the incineration of a Firestone, Colorado family in a wellfield pipeline explosion, but despite this disaster, there are still no regulations requiring the oil and gas industry to disclose the location and condition of their pipelines, even in residential areas.

Although the group buying the ads is listed as “Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development,” a little sleuthing reveals that the group is not led by Coloradans at all, but instead was formed by Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy, major oil companies based in Houston, Texas. 

Today the snake oil salesmen are calling for public land selloffs, tax breaks, and an end to government regulations. Not coincidentally, they stand to profit most from the environmentally destructive “traditional uses” of logging strip mining, drilling and livestock grazing they want to see increased. It would seem that these folks have a direct line to the Trump administration, but conservation-minded westerners are starting to see the sham for what it is.

As more and more westerners rally to the defense of their public lands, the good old boys are losing their stranglehold on the public debate.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as the executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and legal advocacy.

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