Barron: An Open Letter to Senator Mitt Romney on Public Lands

By Morgan Barron, Opinion Writer


Dear Senator-Elect Mitt Romney,

Congratulations on your campaign win. I can only imagine the excitement, anxiety and pressure you must feel as you prepare for your first true debut in Washington. In your victory speech given to a jubilant crowd in Orem, you said, “I will work with good men and women in both parties to serve the cause of America’s enduring greatness and I will endeavor to conduct myself in a manner that is consistent with the values of our great state and with our national character.” I can only hope these are words you continue defiantly repeating while serving in D.C. during hostile moments. As a representative of the people of Utah, you cannot allow your morals or political stances to be defined by the leadership in your party, past or present.

You are taking the seat of Senator Orrin Hatch, one which he has sat in for 41 years. Based on his re-election success, it may seem wise to copy his strategies. However, back in July, a poll was published that indicated 78% of Utahns believed he should not seek re-election this November. Perhaps this was because of his age or long tenure in the Senate, but Hatch’s blatant disrespect for groups in Utah and unconsidered opinion on nuanced topics also contributed to his unelectability. This could not have been more blatant than in the debate over Utah’s public lands, especially the shrinking of Bears Ears, now known as Shash Jaa National Monument, and Grand Staircase Escalante. If you choose to repeat phrases your predecessor used to describe Utah’s National Monuments such as “federal land grabs,” you must be aware of how this rhetoric impacts land use in Utah and how it increases tension in communities.

Colton Hoyt, a back country guide in Boulder, Utah, has watched tourists take bagfuls of “Moqui Marbles,” found soiled underwear in an unmarked archaeology dig and has discovered petroglyphs marred by lover’s initials — all on land that once belonged to the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. According to Hoyt, the vandalism cannot be chalked up to increased tourism alone. He claims it is also political: “There’s a growing sense around here that anything goes, that you can use and abuse the land because the highest officials in the country say you can.” Mr. Romney, Hoyt sentiments are not uncommon, land conservationists to average Boulder residents echo his experiences and concerns.

Bears Ears is even more vulnerable than Grand Staircase Escalante. Since white settlers began colonizing the area, collecting native artifacts has upgraded from looting, vandalism, and grave robbing to a “hobby.” Disturbing these historical sites not only hinders archaeologists’ discoveries about the area’s past, but it is profoundly disrespectful to the cultural and spiritual identity of native people in Utah. While these sites are protected under law by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), crimes of these nature are under-reported and not seen as serious. In fact, when the FBI and BLM indicted 24 people under ARPA and NAGPRA laws, none served time. Instead, the investigation led to the suicide of a prominent doctor in Blanding that divided the community racially, natives against whites. This division was aggravated when the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition tried to protect their sacred lands and sites by lobbying then-President Barack Obama for a National Monument designation for the Bears Ears area, and again when President Donald Trump shrunk the designation by 85%.

Mr. Romney, I do not pretend to be an expert on public land. I am not a tribal advocate, an ecologist or even an economist. However, others are. At the 2017 American West Center’s Navajo Voices on Bears Ears event, Nizhone Meza, an attorney at Utah Diné Bikéyah, simply stated why this sacred land should be preserved, “The land will move you.” Scientists believe Bears Ears National Monument is one of the wildest and most ecologically valuable places in the West. Utah State University’s Richard Krannich blasts the claim that Grand Staircase National Monuments destroyed Boulder’s economy, “[The mineral and agriculture] economy has long since gone away — as it has in much of rural America. That’s happening in Iowa, not just public-lands states in the West.” Mr. Romney, to adequately understand public lands in Utah you must not only talk to your party officials and rural county commissioners, you must listen to those impacted by monument designations from native peoples to back country guides.

Yours truly,

Morgan Barron

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