by Bill Boyle
On June 5, I had an interview with Austin Cope at KSJD radio in Cortez about the Bears Ears National Monument.
The transcript follows:
Cope: Time is still ticking down for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to announce the results of his review about the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. What’s the latest you’ve heard or reported about the Bears Ears Monument in San Juan County?
Well, the 45 day deadline ends this weekend. Saturday, June 10 is the 45th day since the Executive Order. A part of that order was to make a recommendation specifically on Bears Ears and so it is coming up. The clock is ticking and things are moving forward and something will be announced.
I’m sure it’s not the final resolution of these issues but definitely one more step in the process to determine what’s going to happen with this area.
Cope: Throughout this whole Bears Ears Monument saga, we’ve heard a lot from people in San Juan County about how mainstream or national media sources don’t seem to have the full story about what’s going on. Is that still the case?
I think, absolutely. They try to distill a very complicated issue down into one or two key talking points. It’s understandable that the media would want to do that, but it certainly results in a less than in-depth analysis of the issue, from my perspective, at least.
Cope: How much do national politics influence the narrative about the monument?
Oh, I think they come into play directly. You know, many people see this in national terms and not in local terms. The challenge of covering the story from here is that we see it locally. This is our backyard; these are areas that we know and love and want to keep from being destroyed.
A lot of the local perception of this national monument is that the biggest threat to the land would be the hoards of visitors that come here.
One of the things that really frustrates me are the oil and gas arguments that are made. It is being portrayed, in my mind, that these lands are going to be sold to Donald Trump’s friends and cohorts to make money and to exploit their oil and gas properties.
The reality is that they have been able to find very few, if any, significant oil and gas reserves within the borders of the monument.
The initial recommendation was 1.9 million acres and it was cut back to 1.35 million acres. If you look at the lands that were cut back between the initial recommendation and the final designation, a lot of those lands with mineral values, primarily uranium, were part of the area that was cut out.
Cope: How much is that talk about natural resources on the minds of people in San Juan County?
Not at all, I think. To people in San Juan County, this is a local issue about land that they want to be protected. Basically they just are incredulous of the arguments that this is about oil and gas exploration because you can only have oil and gas exploration where there are oil and gas reserves. There are very limited, if any, reserves on the monument itself.
Cope: From your perspective, based in Monticello, whose voices are we not hearing in this debate and whose voices are not making it up to the national level?
I think at the very core, the local frustration was that their voice was not heard; that the voices of environmental groups were heard; that the voices of adjacent tribes were heard; and that the voices of people far away were heard.
But there is a local perception that local voices had not been heard. And regardless of what happens this week with Secretary Zinke, I don’t think you can ever say something like that again.
The locally elected officials, the statewide elected officials, our elected officials in Washington have all had extensive interaction and conversations with the federal officials. So regardless of what happens to the designation of the Bears Ears, those who I think felt on the outside looking in in the initial designation were on the inside in this one.
I can understand there was a lot of concern when the Secretary came here that he didn’t have long, extended meetings with those who were in support of the monument.
That is not entirely true, but his focus was on elected officials while he was here.
That is not necessarily a bad thing when you live in a representative democracy like we do. And that was again part of the local perception.
We live in an area where we have the chance to vote for our representatives. If you look at my ballot, or anyone’s ballot in San Juan County, everyone who won an election on the ballot is opposed to this monument.
After the initial designation, everyone was incredulous, looking around wondering, “How could it happen that everyone that I have on my ballot, who has specific responsibility for that land, they oppose the monument and it still happened?”
Again, that’s no longer the case. The voice of local people and their elected representatives have been very carefully listened to. We’ll see what happens.
Cope: One thing that came out after Zinke’s review was that some tribal elected officials felt like they were shut out of the debate. Does that seem like an issue to people in San Juan County?
I think tribal interests had a significant voice in the initial designation.
If a tribe had land on the monument, their elected officials were included in Secretary Zinke’s visit.
But the Navajo Nation does not have land within the monument. They are an adjacent, sovereign nation. Their voices are heard, they have a right to be heard, and they were heard in the initial designation. I can see why they would be frustrated.
But the first thing Secretary Zinke did when he landed in Salt Lake City was to sit down with representatives of the five tribes in the Inter-Tribal Coalition and have an extended meeting.
So there was representation, there was a meeting, but I can understand why they would be frustrated that they didn’t have as much as they wanted.
There is limited time and a very busy Secretary. If you compare the two visits of the Secretaries of the Interior, they were dramatic. Secretary Zinke met with the locally elected officials. The prior visit included lots of visits with lots of people.
The other thing unique about this is the Interior Department sought written comment on Bears Ears. That is something that has never happened in an Antiquities Act designation.
And as I understand, and as I reported last week, the overwhelming majority of volume of comments were in support of the monument.
So people have their opportunity and we’ll see how those comments are treated and how they factor into what probably is going to be a very complicated visit.
Cope: That leads me to my last question. If we could pull back for a minute, and if I could get your prediction as a journalist on the ground in San Juan County, how is this all going to play out?
I don’t know. Again, it is very complicated. I learned long ago that if I think I have my finger on the pulse of some things, I’m always reminded that I’m just looking into a crystal ball like everyone else.
I do know, and this is the scoop for your listeners that even my readers don’t know yet, is that the San Juan County Commission is in Washington, DC today visiting with Secretary Zinke. I think they will have a better indication of what’s going to happen.
I imagine that the American way is to compromise, and there will be a compromise decision. I think that those who are hopeful – many people in San Juan County are hopeful of a rescinding of the monument – I don’t think that’s likely to happen.