The Trump Administration’s Twisted View of ‘Special Interests’

As you may have heard by now, on Monday Trump travelled to Utah to announce the administration’s plan to shrink Bear’s Ear National Monument from 1.3 million acres to about 220,000 acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.9 million acres to a little over 1 million acres.

Sec. of Interior Ryan Zinke gave a truly bizarre explanation for this move.

He starts off by saying that “public land is for public use and not special interests” and ends by suggesting that the previous designations locked the public out. We need to take a minute to explore what this suggests about how this administration defines “the public” as opposed to “special interests.”

The first thing to note about Bears Ear National Monument is that, for this administration, Native Americans fall in the category of “special interests” because they were the primary drivers in Obama’s decision to designate that land as a national monument.

Five sovereign Native nations—including the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute—had petitioned the president earlier this year to grant federal monument protections to the area. All five tribes attest that the area is dense with burial grounds and cultural sites. In the 19th century, Navajo leaders used the area’s canyons to hide from the U.S. government’s campaign of forced relocation, “the long walk to Bosque Redondo.” Outside archeologists know the area for its unmatched record of rock carvings, which go back thousands of years before the common era.

If you think that talking about Pocahontas last week at the celebration of Native American code talkers was insulting, this decision makes that one pale in comparison.

In addition, the idea that designating a national monument somehow locks the public out is a blatant lie. As the Wilderness Society documents, the public is able to engage in camping, backpacking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, biking and even riding motorized vehicles on designated roads in national monuments. That is precisely why, almost four years ago, Ryan Cooper wrote that the recreational industry was beginning to challenge the extraction industry (coal, oil, gas) in the Mountain West.

So if, in Zinke’s formulation, Native Americans and the general public who visit National Monuments are cast as “special interests,” what is the “public use” this administration is protecting? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he’s talking about the extraction industry.

[Republican] lawmakers have downplayed the potential for development on the lands, but a recent exploration of Bureau of Land Management documents show energy companies have repeatedly pushed the agency for leases of 100,000 acres within the monument.

The Center for Biological Diversity conducted an analysis that found vast hydrocarbon deposits under the eastern fringe of the park that have enticed the industry since 2013.

What we have here from the Trump administration is a classic case of suggesting that up is down and down is up. The public is a “special interest” while “public use” refers to the oil and gas industry.

Remember those days when Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington? Obviously he didn’t mean what a lot of people thought he meant. He wasn’t talking about getting rid of the influence of what you and I would call special interests. He meant turning things over to them and getting rid of us.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.