by Bob Schober
This section is devoted to studying the local impacts of specific issues the Trump Administration or Republican Congress will propose.
“A person is forced by the sparseness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky … what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.”
Kathleen Norris, “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.”
Much of federal public land in western states is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, and is managed under the principle of “multiple use.”
That principle was enshrined in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which “mandates public land resources be managed for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide variety of natural, cultural and historical resources.”
Based on what I believe is a false premise that all of these uses are mutually compatible in a given area, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has suggested that the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, created by former President Obama in December 2016, “though drop-dead gorgeous,” be reduced in size. “It merits some protection, but designating a monument that, including state land, encompasses 1.5 million acres where multiple-use management is hindered or prohibited is not the best use of the land and is not in accordance with the Antiquities Act.”
His statement was a press release of June 10, 2017, announcing his report to President Trump, whose executive order of April 26 directed him to review all national monuments created since 1996 of 100,000 acres or more “without appropriate public comment.” Obama created Bears Ears under authority granted presidents by the 1906 Antiquities Act.
The list includes 27 monuments across the country, including two in Washington state: San Juan Islands, encompassing 1,000 acres; and the Hanford Reach on the Columbia River, surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Reservation with 194,432 acres.
The San Juan Islands monument will probably not come under review, according to a May 16, 2017, article in the San Juan Journal. The Hanford Reach monument area has not been farmed since 1943, but it is home to one of the best salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, according the monument’s website.
Our monuments in this state are a mere sideshow to the much larger push to allow western states to take over federal land —our public land — for gas, oil and mineral extraction. Bears Ears is the current eye of the storm, but Utah state officials, from the governor on down, have been furious for decades that presidents have seen fit to set aside some of the most phenomenal, gorgeous landscapes on the entire planet, denying them opportunities to rake in resource development cash. President Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument, next door to Bears Ears, which essentially locks out new resource development. And what’s truly at risk is not only the beauty of these places, but the immense silences that overawe.
Various Native American nations have come out against any cutbacks to Bears Ears. Much of the whole monument is filled with 100,000 archaeological sites — Clovis people occupied Bears Ears as early as 13,000 years ago, and the Navajo and Ute Southern Ute tribes claim sacred sites throughout the area. The Navajo Nation and the environmental law group Earthjustice are preparing lawsuits against the proposed reduction, which Republicans seem to be using to create a legal justification for transferring public lands to the states.
But here’s what’s behind it: The Four Corners area, where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Utah meet, is a “methane hotspot,” as the energy industry puts it, and underlies a considerable portion of both Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase monuments. Trump and the energy barons seem to think that too much of that precious land that belongs to all of us should be handed over to the state and oil, gas and coal companies. The Utah Public Lands Initiative, which supports states taking over federal public lands, is “rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist.”
Not so, at least in northwest New Mexico.
East of Farmington, N.M., lies BLM land that overlays a large part of the “methane hotspot.” Most of the wells lie about an hour’s drive from Durango, Colorado, where in 2002 I was a reporter for the Durango Herald, with oil and gas issues my main beat.
Two New Mexico ranchers who had grazing leases on that BLM land were raising a ruckus in Congress over the increasing density of one-acre gas wells and dirt access roads. The gas is “coal-bed methane,” which is held in the coal layer by water pressure, so releasing the gas requires pumping out the heavily brined water into discharge ponds next to the well jacks.
They asked me to join them for a tour of the area with the then BLM director, Kathleen Clarke. We rattled our way in Jeeps over deteriorating, badly rutted roads (which the gas companies failed to maintain as required) to show Clarke the various problems, which included unfenced discharge ponds which attracted, and poisoned, cattle.
Throughout the trip, about 50 miles, we never escaped a background roar from gas compression stations. The stations are necessary to concentrate and move pressurized gas through pipelines – about one compression station per 500 wells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They are loud, and the EPA explains why: A “small scale” compression station requires an average of 8,900 horsepower, whereas a “large-scale” station on a major interstate trunk line uses on average 14,055 horsepower, usually through gas-fired or jet engines.
And what about neighbors? A 1999 University of Maryland study of six homes within 750 meters (about a half-mile) of a compression station showed that five of the six experienced an average more than 55 decibels over a 24-hour period. That’s equivalent to the sound level of a two-person conversation, but imagine it every minute, every day, never stopping. Never any peace and quiet, which that land, undisturbed, promises.
I asked Clarke at the end of the tour: “Since this is public land open to all of us for multiple use, when will you bring your family here on vacation to camp or hike?” Her look told all, but all she said was, “Our mission is to manage with multiple use.” The entire area obviously had been turned into a national sacrifice zone for the oil and gas industry, but Clarke turned away and got back into the Jeep.
And it has since only gotten worse: The BLM’s Farmington Field Office (FFO) has permitted an additional 30,000 wells and 16,000 rights of way. There are currently more than 40,000 drilled wells — equal to one well per 120 acres — and 300 oil fields in the 7,500-square-mile San Juan Basin, which the FFO manages and extends into southwestern Colorado and parts of Utah and Arizona. Camping or hiking there, anyone?
State officials argue that restricting the monuments is economical, but here are some facts:
n In 2016, visitors to Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands and other national parks and monuments spent $1.1 billion, which sustained 18,000 jobs and $547 million in labor income, according to the National Park Service. In 2014, oil, gas and mining severance taxes yielded $105,001,36, according to the state budget office. The state often runs deficits.
n In 2016, the BLM reported $2 billion in royalty revenue from multi-state federal leases.
n In 2016, the Outdoor Industry Association estimated federal tax revenue from the recreation economy at $40 billion.
Subdue or Steward?
So where did the idea of resourcing spectacular country for mere money come from? How to understand Ronald Reagan’s 1966 statement while running for California governor: “You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”
Perhaps it is largely based on the assumption that God in Genesis tells Adam and Eve to “subdue the earth” and “have dominion” over all living things. What seems to be forgotten is God’s command that they “replenish the earth,” that precedes “subdue it.” Genesis 2:15 says that Adam was put in the Garden of Eden to “dress it and keep it.” Sounds like stewardship, not ownership. Evangelical environmentalists, who have created “creation care” about climate change, agree.
Early Christian monasticism recognized that the physical and spiritual are profoundly interwoven, according to Belden C. Lane, author of “The Solace of Fierce landscapes.”
So where does this come from? According to sociologist Max Weber, Christianity and Jewish theology systematically rejected pagan animism, which created “disenchantment of the world in the Western mind.”
“Hence, this tendency in western civilization has been toward the triumph of history over nature, time over space, male dominance over female dependence and technical mastery of the land over a gentle reverence for life,” Weber wrote in his book, “Sociology of Religion.” “The result has been a rampant secularization of nature and activism of spirit in western life, leaving us exhausted in our mastery a world stripped of magic and mystery.”
Thus, American politicians and engineers in the 1960s could propose building Bridge Dam inside Grand Canyon at river mile 238, but public uproar forced cancellation of the project. And Trump, Pruitt and Zinke can imagine drilling and mining in the Grand Staircase and ignoring Navajo sacred sites in Bears Ears, possibly polluting with noise and gas well odors.
Edward Abbey, in “Desert Solitaire,” put it more bluntly: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit and is as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
This growing human disconnection from nature and exploitation of the natural world seem to be creating more cultural unease, if not outright madness. Our culture teaches us that performance is the sine qua non of success. But how many have worked hard in careers to gather all the toys and tinsel of success only to discover in mid-life a deep unhappiness?
There must be more to life. And there is.
Nature and Well-Being
A new branch of psychology developed in the 1990s to deal with such ennui. Psychologist and deep ecologist Theodore Roszak realized that there is a connection between human psyche and nature and developed ecopsychology to deal with the psychic harm caused by disconnection from the natural world. Ecopsychology assumes that humans, too, are part of the animal kingdom, evolved in the natural world, and much of the grief, shame, emptiness and fear many people struggle with may actually be a natural reaction to the unnatural demands of our modern world.
“The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious,” Roszak wrote in “The Voice of the Earth: An Explanation of Ecopsychology.” “For ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society. Open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity.”
To some, that may sound like psycho-babbled flimflam, but I know it to be true. I experienced it in what I believe to be sacred, natural places. Who among us has stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and not been struck speechless by the power of its immense beauty and overwhelming silence, or hiked up to Delicate Arch and been awed by its fierce beauty framing a rising sun, or been embraced by the grandeur of ancient forests in the shadow of Mt. Baker?
Science confirms it. “Forest bathing,” a translation from Japanese, is the emotional and physical benefits humans derive from spending time among trees – anywhere, including urban parks. Trees emit essential oils, called phytoncide, to protect themselves from germs and insects. About two dozen studies have shown that “forest bathing” reduces psychological stress, improves sleep, increases vigor and feelings of liveliness; lowers blood pressure, cortisol levels and pulse rates, and seems to improve immune function, according to the Environment, Health and Field Science Department in Japan’s Chiba University.
The complaint is that too much has been set aside out of the hands of developers. But immense beauty requires immense space to be fully preserved. There is no grander terrain on earth, and we must protect it at all cost to preserve those fierce landscapes as sanctuaries where we and our children’s children can find solace in silence away from the noise, light and craziness of our technological, clock-driven world.
State Management of Our Lands
• Acres of public land managed by the federal government: 640 million
• Total acres of federal land that were entrusted to the 48 contiguous states: 156 million
• Acres of those public-trust lands that states have sold: 110 million, or 70 percent
• Acres of federal land entrusted to Western states: 64 million
• Acres of those public-trust lands sold by Western states: 34 million
• Estimated yearly cost of managing federal public lands in Utah: $280 million
• Utah’s 2016 wildlife-resources budget: $85 million
Source: Field & Stream, June 2017