Dear Secretary Zinke
re: Bears Ears National Monument
I am a stakeholder, and I want that National Monument.
Or am I really a stakeholder? As a US citizen, I claim I am because this is Federal land. Many folks in western states suggest that I am not, because state governments should have domain over resources within their states. I live in California. Tribal people, with respect to Bears Ears, believe that they have a primary say in the matter. Thus, despite the fact that I agree with their position, they would consider me a stakeholder of infintesimally small proportion. That leaves Presidential promises and Republican values based on state's rights versus Tribal rights coupled with environmental concerns. Good luck, Secretary Zinke. This smells like bear poo no matter what you do. How did we get here, anyway?
The issue is simple and divisive. Utah is largely federal land. The state would like to see increased energy development. The federal government has been, by some people’s thinking, conservative with oil and gas leases, “locking up” growth potential in the west. Others see federal actions such as the Bears Ears National Monument designation as doing our level best to meet minimum standards for protecting the environment.
You might be wondering how that affects my claim to be a stakeholder. Simply this. When this is a federal decision, I am a stakeholder. And, I feel that I should be a stakeholder. Most of what I love about this country is the wild nature of the western US, and feel quite strongly that enough is enough and that we need to protect what small fraction of America that remains wild and if not untrammeled, at least not trammeled very badly. I want my voice heard. Utah is part of America and part of that great West that I care about. However, I am but one small voice among 350 million.
If many western Governors and legislators had their way, Bears Ears, and countless others like it, would be a state issue. Their claim, not unreasonably, is that they live in Utah, and that energy development should be their decision. Were that the case, then by my not living in Utah, I am quite clearly not a stakeholder. Therein lies the problem. When we have disagreements about how we treat the environment, how do we decide who is a stakeholder?
One of the great divides in the US has been between what is under federal versus state versus local jurisdiction. The civil war is also known as the war of States rights. The Republican Party for the past several decades has been pushing for increased state autonomy over federal control. This, of course draws a sharp line over who is and who is not a stakeholder in environmental issues. As President Trump signed an executive order driving a review of all recent national monuments established by Presidents using the Antiquities Act, Secretary Zinke has taken a visit to Utah where the Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Obama.
On the local scale, Bears Ears abuts Tribal lands of the Navajo and Ute Tribes. Does that not make them special stakeholders of higher value than others? On the global scale, the lawsuit of children against Trump might suggest that Venice, which may be doomed by sea level rise, might legitimately argue that dragging more carbon out of the ground raises the sea level, making them a stakeholder. Then again, the people of Venice might also argue that they are a stakeholder in my burning that carbon to drive my car or heat my bath.
These arguments naturally lead to consideration of scale on two fronts. In terms of magnitude, heating my bath has a microscopic impact on atmospheric carbon, opening a new gas lease has a small impact on global atmospheric carbon, and changing federal policy of oil and gas exploration or clean energy incentives has a sizeable impact on global atmospheric carbon. There are no clear objective criteria to delineate when anyone is, or isn’t, a stakeholder based on the magnitude of emissions. Where would you place the stakeholder interests of people living in places like Venice?
In terms of proximity, courts generally give standing to someone who is materially damaged by an action. Clearly these decisions hang on the term “materially damaged.” Similarly, there are concerns about proximity and scale for being a stakeholder. Since atmospheric carbon is well-mixed, the argument seems reasonable to say that anyone materially damaged by increasing sea level may be a stakeholder in federal energy policy of the largest carbon emitting country on the planet.
For those favoring environmental protection, the issue may be a bit clearer. One would be hard pressed to argue that an Italian citizen living in Venice is a stakeholder in wilderness and land preservation in Utah. US citizens are, in my federalist leaning view, stakeholders in those policies and those decisions. Utah legislators, by claiming national monument designation to be federal over-reach, indicate that they believe that the state of Utah should be allowed to promote oil and gas development, if that is what the people of Utah want. That would make me, as a resident of California, not a stakeholder. States rights.
But is oil and gas leasing what the people of Utah actually want? I am not so sure. Issues such as Bears Ears provide an opportunity for people to think about fundamental objectives. Is opening Bears Ears to oil and gas leasing a fundamental objective? Only for a small handful of companies eager to bid on the rights. For everyone else, opening oil and gas leasing in Bears Ears or anywhere else is a means objective that reflects one of what might be many different fundamental objectives.
What are possible fundamental objectives driving reconsideration of recently designated National Monuments? One might favor energy leases for the purpose of energy independence. A US that produces the energy that it uses and is not beholden to other countries for energy has been widely cited as an important objective. This seems like a fundamental objective. One might favor actions that lead to jobs creation. The word ‘jobs’ is guaranteed to cone within 1-2 sentences from anyone speaking about energy development. Jobs and economic growth is always very high on the list of concerns for Americans. I say that jobs and economic growth are fundamental objectives. Finally, state autonomy. Arguments about the jurisdiction between states and the federal government date to the very founding of the nation. They represent autonomy for more local control and self-governance versus the efficiency gains by allowing a federal government to set uniform standards to which all states must accede authority. I find state’s rights to also be a fundamental objective, although I am not quite sure what we are trying optimally achieve with this objective and so will give it a lesser position for most of the rest of this discussion.
Protecting nature from development, plain and simple, seems like a fundamental objective. Those who like seeing national monuments created do so, in general because they want nature to be well protected. These are not people wishing for less energy independence, fewer jobs, slower economic growth or weaker states for their own sake.
In fact, it is likely safe to say that very strong majorities of people share all of these objectives: well protected nature, energy independence, jobs, a strong economy, and a healthy balance of local government jurisdiction to balance against federal mandates. If this is true, then we have consensus on fundamental objectives, but divisiveness on the specifics of how we get there, or more specifically, where something like Bears Ears fits into acheiving our fundamental objectives.
Those who think deeply about collaborative decisions would have us then examine Bears Ears against these objectives. How much value in nature protection do we get out of Bears Ears, specifically? How much would opening oil and gas leases in Bears Ears contribute to energy independence, how many jobs would it create? What would this development contribute to GDP?
Does de-designating Bears Ears National Monument, without making it state land, materially represent re-claiming of lost state authority? Oddly, these issues rarely become part of the argument, journalists and politicans favoring principaled arguments on states rights to dominate despite the fact that I challenge anyone to define the optimal state of balance between state and federal jurisdiction without descending to a litany of examples.
I have never been to Bears Ears. I don't know how many jobs oil and gas leases there would create, or how much it would contribute to energy independence. However, I am pretty certain that if the people of the state of Utah were given the numbers and pressed to decide the question, that they might have pause. The question to which I refer is this. Are you willing to sacrifice this part of Utah’s wild lands, accept the risk of groundwater and surface water contamination that comes with mining, and accept the multigenerational burden of dealing with the aftermath of the mining operations after completion for projected achievement toward energy independence, jobs, or economic growth? I would wager that a strong majority would see any individual oil or gas lease as a bad deal for the neighborhood, a better deal for the region, and possibly a good deal for the state. This, then re-opens the state and federal jurisdiction. If degrading the environment for economic gain is always a bum deal for the neighbors and the neighbors get to decide, then the national interest in a healthy economy will never be met. We all have to accept some losses of things we value for the greater good of society. That is what makes societies work.
This brings us back to the issue of who within Utah is more a stakeholder and who is less a stakeholder. Bears Ears rests up alongside the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Tribal Lands. The local Tribes petitioned for the national monument designation. I am willing to bet that these Tribal councils would argue that they are larger stakeholders than the state legislators of Utah and that their desires should supersede those of Utah. Further, my guess is that they are not so keen on oil and gas leasing in Bears Ears. What about the non Native American people in the towns of Mexican Hat, Blanding and Monticello, the nearby towns? Again, the views of these people matter and might also be mixed. These are the communities that may gain jobs and growth. But these are also the communities with the most at risk in terms of social problems that have become associated with mining operations (e.g., North Dakota), water quality issues associated with mining. I would guess that these communities have mixed feelings about the issue. They should, at least.
Wherein does the line get drawn for a stakeholder? My guess is that the peak value for supporting state autonomy and opening Bears Ears for oil and gas sits somewhere around Salt Lake City. Clearly a resident of Salt Lake City would economically benefit from energy development that puts money into state coffers. Those resident also suffer from a loss of environmental quality.
If decisions like one before the future of Bears Ears were local issues, then there would be a diminishingly small number of stakeholders because not many people live in the neighborhood. If this were a state issue, then the urban populations of rural states become heavily weighted stakeholders. If it is a federal issue, then the urban populations of the country get to be the big stakeholders. This is the case simply because these are where most of the legislators are from, and presumably they are expressing the views of their constituencies (and not the lobbies that got them elected, says the snarky voice in the back of my head).
Of course all of these are mixed communities with people on both sides of the issue, despite generally agreeing on our fundamental objectives to protect nature, protect our access to clean water, increase energy independence and jobs and economic growth. This, then, is exactly what makes this what I describe as ‘good conflict.’ We can recognize and define shared fundamental objectives. We can recognize that two people who hold very similar values with respect to these fundamental objectives might legitimately disagree on the outcome of a specific decision to exploit oil and gas reserves in Bears Ears. What it comes down to is how we place value on the opinions of stakeholders across this spectrum.
I love nature. I highly value wilderness. I would like to see Bears Ears remain protected. On the other hand, I also would clearly defer to the Navajo and Ute who are clearly more important stakeholders than me. I would defer to anyone mateirally impacted by either the pollution or the jobs if I felt that they informed themselves of the issues and contributed to the decisions based on fundamental objectives and not some politicized caricature polarizing tree-huggers versus corporate libertarians.
Then we get to Salt Lake City. Do I think that a resident of an urban center 359 miles from Bears Ears deserves a larger say in the issue than someone from Albuquerque (311 miles) because they live within the arbitrary state boundary of Utah? The folks in Albuquerque actually live closer to the monument than the folks in Salt Lake City. No, I am afraid that I do not. I do not because they have a weighted deck. These are stakeholders who would reap benefit through state income, but not share the local cost. People of Albuquerque are more likely to be honest brokers because they would share neither the tax revenu benefit nor the environmental degradastion cost. I guess that makes me either a federalist or a person who pays attention to maps. Let's let Albuquerque decide the fate of Bears Ears.
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