Monday, December 19, 2016
ELC #12: Deconstructing Zero Sum Environmental Games: Bears Ears National Monument as Reparations and Reconciliation
Owls versus jobs. Water for farmers versus water for salmon. Big dam versus tiny fish. Environmental disputes are often described in this way, as contests over limited resources that require one side to lose in order for the other to win. Many environmental conflicts may not be zero-sum games according to technical game theoretic definitions, but characterizing them in this way has traction with the media, the public, and the parties themselves. The zero-sum description frames our debates, often hardening positions and limiting the range of options, both practically and conceptually. Indeed, “I win, you lose” views of the world seem to be corroding every aspect of our public and private lives.
Rather than tinker from within this frame, what if we pulled back the lens and viewed natural resource conflicts in their historical and social contexts? Owls-versus-jobs is the snapshot. The long view would describe how federal forest service policies subsidized unsustainable logging, resulting in undiversified and therefore fragile economies. It would also include how efforts to undermine labor organizing in the Pacific Northwest prevented alliances between environmentalists and loggers. Another part of the story would acknowledge that limitations in federal environmental laws lead to over-reliance on single species strategies. The longer view is harder to describe in a bumper sticker. But excavating the historical forces that lead to particular environmental disputes may help us move beyond pat and unhelpful dichotomies. In the heat of the conflict, it may feel like owls are the opposite of jobs, but reifying that feeling is neither historically accurate nor normatively attractive. Who wants to live in a world where we have to choose between those two?
Let’s consider the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in this context. In southeastern Utah, a coalition of five American Indian tribes, with support from regional and national conservation groups, has proposed that President Obama designate 1.9 million acres of federal land as a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The lands at issue include narrow canyons that wind their way to the Colorado River, wild sandstone uplifts and towers, and troves of ancient Puebloan ruins. The proposed monument is located in a remote and sparsely populated part of Utah.
While outsiders who visit may see little reason to oppose greater protections for this extreme landscape, feelings in Utah run high. Governor Gary Herbert infelicitously described the proposal as a “political Tomahawk,” and at a public hearing staged for opponents of the monument, said, “It is my belief that a unilateral monument designation will divide the people. It will create anger and division. It will provoke protest and may inhibit our ability to resolve tough public land management decisions for decades to come.”Governor Herbert’s zero-sum framing, echoed by other monument opponents, is “Preservation versus Democracy.” There are alternate versions of the zero-sum framing as well. They include: resource extraction versus preservation; local (non-Indian) control versus outsider influence; and various versions of “jobs versus environment.” One way to counter this is to point out that monument designation does not foreclose many different uses of public lands, and that the ones that are precluded (mining, drilling, and other extractive uses) are balanced by new economic opportunities (outdoor recreation businesses, tourism, and hospitality) for people in the region. This response is important, but for people who truly want mining, for example, it won’t change their views that they lost because monument supporters won. Further, responding solely within the zero-sum framing omits the most compelling case for this monument designation. So let’s widen the frame.
Cedar Mesa, the uplifted plane that ascends to the Bears Ears buttes and comprises the heart of the proposed monument, has been the intermittent home to indigenous peoples of the Southwest since at least 6500 BCE. Artifacts, textiles, and rock art from each period of human occupation have left their mark. Around every canyon bend, or so it seems, is another cliff dwelling or petroglyph. The human population ebbed and flowed in the region until roughly 1300 C.E., when the ancient Puebloans left Cedar Mesa for the last time until the modern era.
Fluctuating habitation makes sense in Bears Ears’ stark landscape; it is a tough place to be on a continuous basis. Endemic animal and plant species provide mute testament. Consider the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad and the Red Spotted Toad. They spend dry periods in states of near-suspended animation, burrowing into the sand or under rocks. With just enough rain to awaken them, they spring to life, filling shallow pools with a froth of tiny pink amphibians. Native plants, like Indian rice grass, narrow leaf yucca, and kachina daisies, have their own survival strategies for high desert living. One thing they all have in common: make do with very little water.
The five tribal nations of the inter-tribal coalition—Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni—have endured far more than the climactic conditions. The five tribes, and many others (including Paiutes, Goshutes, and Pueblo peoples) at one time populated all of Southern Utah. American invasion and settlement, accompanied by military force, all but cleared tribal peoples from the southern part of the state by the late 1800s. Today, only a small strip of the Navajo Reservation and a tiny community of Ute Mountain Utes remain in Utah’s Southeastern quarter.
And yet the tribes’ attachment to Bears Ears remains fierce. Bears Ears is a place of origin stories. The renowned Navajo leader, Chief Manuelito, who negotiated the Treaty of 1868 that enabled his people to return to their homeland, was born in the shadow of the Bears Ears buttes. Tribal members from all over come to Bears Ears to collect piñon nuts, firewood, and native plants for medicine. Families hold ceremonies for the children, and visit the Ancient Puebloan sites that belonged to their relatives. Elders and medicine people tend to the land. Designating Bears Ears as a National Monument, open to all but co-managed by the tribes, would be a small gesture of reparations for tribes’ forced ejection from their ancestral lands.
Bears Ears would be reparative in another way. The Antiquities Act of 1906 is rightly celebrated as a tool that achieved breathtaking conservation across our public lands. Many of our most beloved National Parks started out as Monuments. The Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Zion, Bryce, Arches, and more were first protected by the stroke of a presidential pen. But for tribes there is a dark side to this history. Lands that were “preserved” from settlement or extraction were often tribal lands. The Havasupai people of the Grand Canyon lost their plateau lands and their way of life to preservation policies. “Protecting” Yosemite Valley entailed ridding it of the Miwok and Paiute people who lived there. Similar stories, though unique in their grim details, can be told about parks and monuments throughout the west.
The Bears Ears would be the very first National Monument proposed by a coalition of tribes. Many conservation groups support the Bears Ears proposal, but it is, and has been, an indigenous movement from the beginning. President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act to restore tribal connections to their lands (instead of sever them) would be an audacious act of hope. A proclamation designating Bears Ears would provide cause, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., to believe that the arc of conservation history might bend toward justice. Despite all of this, Bears Ears might still seem like a zero-sum game to some. But that will not endure. In the long view, an action that protects the land and its creatures while adding justice to the world has no losers. The world is small, but it is bigger than that.