Originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, October 31, 2015
As a young student in Salt Lake City, there was once a time when I thought that rural communities were only interested in federal land because they wanted to protect their desire to ride ATVs and drill baby drill. That’s mostly because people like Phil Lyman, Rob Bishop or Ken Ivory dominate news stories and work hard to make headlines that push political agendas that, let’s face it, don’t make a lot of sense for anyone but themselves. After two years (no, not on a mission) being immersed in a rural Utah culture, I have come to find that I was dead wrong, and I grossly misunderstood the motivations of rural communities and land managers. My apologies.
The truth is that the average rural Utahn cares much more deeply about job creation, expanding their local economy and maintaining their rural lifestyle than they do about stopping a new national monument, blocking wilderness designation or “taking back our land,” as the American Lands Council would have you believe. In my experience, most rural residents still believe in the classic American dream. A lot of times that does mean taking a job on an oil rig or taking over their family’s generations-old grazing permits, but it doesn’t mean they are diametrically opposed to the idea of federal land or that they don’t see the benefits of preservation.
Congressman Bishop might not like to see this printed, but there was once a time in Utah’s history when rural communities were the impetus for expanding federal lands management. Shocking, I know. In San Juan County, Phil Lyman’s own stomping grounds, residents lobbied the government to create Canyonlands National Monument. I repeat, the local residents of San Juan County are a major reason Canyonlands National Park exists. In Cache County, cattle and sheep grazers once pleaded for federal oversight, asking the Forest Service to create the Wasatch-Cache National Forest because locals were overgrazing the mountains and ruining water supplies.
I continue to hope that Congressman Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative will actually garner bipartisan support and show compromises from both sides of the aisle. A strong hand to play, and a serious show of compromise, would be the designation of San Rafael Swell National Park in exchange for the millions of acres of public land they want to start drilling into. The economic impacts for this region, and specifically the town I live in, would be huge. Towns in Emery and Carbon counties, along with places like Hanksville and Moab, would see huge and sustainable economic growth.
But with Bishop’s recent refusal to let the widely supported Land and Water Conservation Fund come up for renewal, his opposition to locally and nationally supported national monument status for the Bears Ears landscape in southern Utah and his outright refusal to believe that ancient dwellings, rock art and historic cultural resources on public lands are antiquities, well, I have my doubts.
But let’s not blame this all on hardcore wing nuts on the right. Urban Democrats are just as much at fault here, too. They’ve given up on rural communities. They don’t support rural grassroots efforts to find common ground, and there is no Democratic money being spent here. Democrats no longer see rural communities as valuable commodities, so there’s no wonder rural communities stopped supporting Democratic agendas
I recently mentioned Phil Lyman to a group of local residents who have lived in my town for years. Surprisingly, not a single one of them knew who he was. Turns out, not all rural communities are as passionate about illegal ATV riding as we’ve been led to believe.