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Visiting Bear’s Ears, Reflecting on Roosevelt and Zinke

Teddy Roosevelt Display - Natural Bridges National Monument

A display greeting visitors at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, with Teddy Roosevelt’s proclamation declaring the area as protected lands. An ironic display given the proximity to Bear’s Ear’s National Monument, and what supposed Roosevelt devotee Ryan Zinke and his Department of Interior have done to conservation efforts in the US.

In June, our family took a vacation to the western United States, visiting almost a dozen different National Parks and National Monuments. For a part of the trip we were based in Moab in eastern Utah, with two subsequent days in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  On the travel day in between those two locations, we were going to Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah when we realized that Bear’s Ears National Monument was nearby. Given the controversy surrounding Bear’s Ears, we had to make a short detour to visit.

Bear’s Ears is so named for a pair of adjacent buttes thought to resemble a pair of bear’s ears.  In Navajo legend, the buttes were formed from the ears of Changing Bear Maiden, who was beautiful and desired by all men.  Tricked into marrying Coyote, Changing Bear Maiden’s brother attempted to hide her from him by cutting off her ears and changing her form. The ears became the prominent buttes for which the National Monument was named.

Bear’s Ears was targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in size. Key to that move was Senator Orrin Hatch, who suggested the move to the administration shortly after the January 2017 inauguration.  Why reduce the size of a National Monument?  Money of course. It was thought there were some potential oil, gas, and mineral sources on some of the land.  Hatch submitted his own proposed “shapefile” (a digital boundary) to the administration, looking like a heavily gerrymandered political district, with boundaries drawn to eliminate potential resource extraction locations from the Monument boundaries. The suggested boundary was adopted largely as is.  The move was completed on December 4th, 2017, when Trump issued issued a proclamation reducing the size of the monument by an astounding 85%.

The area itself is gorgeous. On much of the lowlands around Bear’s Ears, sagebrush flats are interspersed with dry pinyon and juniper woodlands.  The two Bear’s Ears buttes themselves reach up to 9,058 feet, with heavily forested and green slopes.  It’s rugged and wild land, with little in the way of current development or anthropogenic land uses other than some grazing cattle.

Bear's Ears National Monument - Summit

A small gravel and rock road leads to a small pass between the “ears” of Bear’s Ears, giving you wonderful looks at the two rugged buttes.

There’s a rough unpaved road that leads up to the buttes themselves, allowing you to drive between the two buttes and towards the interior of the National Monument. When I say “rough”, I mean a road that you DEFINITELY wouldn’t take if there had been any recent rain, and a road that we probably had no business taking our rental car. Given the infamy of what’s happened to Bear’s Ears though, we did make the drive up.  It’s quiet and isolated…we only encountered one other car on the road (thankfully, given the narrowness of the road!). The literal quiet in places such as this is something I’ve REALLY learned to appreciate, as there are fewer and fewer locations where you can sit and enjoy your surroundings without hearing even a hint of noise from nearby transportation routes or people.  A beautiful location that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Natural Bridges National Monument is adjacent to Bear’s Ears. We spent time hiking in that Monument, and also stopped at the visitor’s center (Bear’s Ears doesn’t have it’s own visitors center). As you enter the Natural Bridges visitor’s center, you’re greeted by a lifesize cutout of Teddy Roosevelt, with a quote of his own proclamation from 1908, establishing the area as a National Monument. Irony…pure irony.  That’s what went through my mind after seeing the Roosevelt display, just after visiting Bear’s Ears.

The reason? Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, fancies himself as a Teddy Roosevelt devotee.  From the day he started the position, Zinke has constantly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt.  As a “fan” of the outdoors and using the outdoors for personal enjoyment, Zinke and Roosevelt may have some common ground. Roosevelt himself has a checkered past.  He’s considered an icon for conservation in the United States, while simultaneously being labeled as deplorable for his treatment of Native Americans.  Other informational signs at Natural Bridges note that Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by the Pubelos, Utes, and Navajos…given that Zinke and Trump completely ignored the Native American communities’ history and desire to protect this land, it’s clear that Zinke too shares Roosevelt’s complete lack of respect for Native American rights.  It’s not forgivable in either case, but with Roosevelt it was more a mirroring of prevalent attitudes in the country.  Over 100 years later, you’d hope someone like a Zinke or Trump would be more enlightened (hint…they’re not).

Bear's Ears National Monument

A view of the two famed “ears” of Bear’s Ears National Monument, from the small road leading to the top. A dry sage, juniper, and pinyon pine landscape becomes more lush as you move up towards the buttes, with greener deciduous and evergreen forests at the top.

Soon after the naming of Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, Grist published an interview with Roosevelt scholar and historian Douglas Brinkley about the comparisons between Zinke and Roosevelt. Brinkley notes some similarities, stating that both were military men, both have/had massive egos, and both were “conservationists”, in that they appreciated our natural lands. Again, however, much of that “appreciation” is based not on environmentalism or even protection of a natural state, and more on the exploitation of that land for human gain.  “Human gain” can mean the hunting and fishing that both Zinke and Roosevelt enjoyed, but also means timber harvesting, cattle grazing, and mineral extraction.

Brinkley does make the clear distinction between “Conservationist” and “Environmentalist”.  The Zinke definition of “conservationist” is a far cry from the modern definition of conservationist, and in complete opposition to modern environmentalist views. Zinke has a history of touting himself as a modern-day Roosevelt conservationist, but turning a blind eye on environmental issues when push comes to shove.  When Zinke ran for Congress in Montana, he was originally given skeptical-yet-hopeful grades for his supposedly pro-environment ideology. That changed the moment he took office. His voting record consistently showed a complete disdain for conservation and environmentalism, with the League of Conservation Voters giving him  a lifetime score of a mere 4% (!!!) for their National Environmental Scorecard. Similar to the somewhat hopeful attitudes towards Zinke before he took office a DOI, I suspect the Brinkley interview would be quite different if held today, after Zinke’s anti-environmentalist views were made even more clear.

Despite Roosevelt’s well-established faults, there’s little doubt he was a true “fan” of America’s natural heritage. Roosevelt has to be rolling over in his grave based on supposed fanboy Zinke’s moves related to conservation of US lands.  Under his guidance the Department of Interior has eliminated over 2 million acres of protected lands. They’ve moved to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.   After a very successful program under Obama to establish state, federal, and private partnerships to protect the Sage Grouse in the Western U.S., Zinke and DOI have scrapped the plan and moved to expand mineral extraction and grazing on fragile sagebrush habitats on which the Grouse depends. As with much of Trump’s administration, Zinke is clearly beholden to the oil and gas industry, with conservation barely considered in any of DOI’s land management decisions. As this story from the New York Times reports, Department of Interior personally were LITERALLY asked by Zinke to prepare a summary of each National Monument in the United States, and what the oil, gas, and mineral production potentials were on those lands. 

Ryan Zinke…other than your ego and your disdain for Native American rights, you are no Teddy Roosevelt.  

It’s such a beautiful, rugged landscape. I  hope it’s kept in this state in the coming decades.  However, indications aren’t favorable, based on what’s happening at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, another Monument that was drastically cut in size by Zinke and the Trump administration.  Mere months after a reduction in size of that monument, a Canadian mining company has announced plans to mine copper and cobalt from lands that were previously protected.

Your national “protected” lands, up for auction to the highest bidder. THAT is the legacy you shall be remembered for, Mr. Zinke.

Bear's Ear's National Monument - Sign

A display at Natural Bridges National Monument, with the two prominent buttes from Bear’s Ears in the background. As the sign notes, Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by multiple Native American Tribes, tribes which all put heavy pressure on the Trump administration and Zinke to keep the land protected.

Thousands of Snow Geese Killed in Montana

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

A mighty flock of swirling snow geese, looking for a place to land while migrating through South Dakota. It can be pretty spectacular when the geese are migrating through the state, but alas, these birds have to land SOMEWHERE to rest and refuel. A massive flock in Montana made the mistake of landing in a toxic mine pit, resulting in the death of thousands of birds.

I had to travel to Minneapolis yesterday for a work trip.  We’re about a 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities, I HATE flying, and especially given that I’d have to tly, pick up a rental, and then drive 20 miles through town to the north part of the city where my meetings were, I decided I’d drive instead of flying.  Winter has finally hit the area after an incredibly warm and beautiful fall, with 40+ mile-per-hour winds yesterday and plummeting temperatures, but that huge weather change did trigger a massive migration of Snow Geese through the area. As I drove I often saw many very large flocks of Snow Geese, struggling a bit in that wind, but all moving south to escape the cold temperatures.

Around here in South Dakota, you’ll typically find Snow Geese in two types of locations.  During the day, you’ll often see massive flocks sitting in open agricultural fields, feeding on grain residue.  When they’re looking for safety and a place to rest, they’ll choose a lake or other water body.  Imagine a flock of 10,000 Snow Geese, heading south to escape winter.  They’re flying for many hours, are tired and are looking for a place to rest, and upon finally spotting a large patch of open water, they circle and head down and land on surface to rest.

It’s not just South Dakota and Minnesota where the migration has been in full swing. In Montana a flock of many thousands did the same thing this week, circling down to rest in a large water body.  Unfortunately, that open water body was the infamous Berkeley Pit, an EPA Superfund site, and a toxic cesspool of cadmium, copper, zinc, and a host of other dissolved minerals that result in water acidic enough to dissolve metal.  The bodies of thousands of geese were found in the lake this week, chemical burns covering their bodies, as well as the linings of their mouths and throats for birds that tried to drink or feed.  Some birds temporarily escaped the toxic hell, but the bodies of many other Snow Geese have been found scattered throughout the area as they succumbed to the chemical mix after leaving the mine pit.

There are no physical barriers to prevent waterfowl or other wildlife from accessing the toxic water in the mine pit. The story notes the company that owns the mine (Atlantic Richfield Company) uses noise and other deterrents to try to scare away wildlife from accessing the water. The company touts “official” numbers they report to the EPA, that only 14 birds died in the mine pit in the period from 2010 to 2013.  Yeah, sure.  The company may have reported finding 14 carcasses during that span, but I find it very hard to believe that open water didn’t attract more wildlife, deterrents or not, and that intentionally or unintentionally that 14 count is a woeful undercount of the true toll.

Don’t think a company would try to cover up other such incidents?  The Washington Post story notes that a similar, yet smaller scale event happened in the same pit back in 1992.  During that incident, Atlantic Richfield Company tried to pass blame of the birds death to other causes, stating that perhaps “toxic grain” or some other poison killed all the birds that were floating in their mine pit.  That defense fell apart when the University of Wyoming did postmortems on the birds and found their deaths were caused by severe burns, from water acidic enough to dissolve aluminum and other metals.

This is but one incident, in one mining pit.  There are literally thousands of such waste pits in the western U.S., relics of either past or current mining operations.  Very short-term economic gain drives the development of these mining areas, but what about the long-term impacts?  What is done with waste pits like after mining ceases?  Are there any plans to ever detoxify the waters and clean up the mining residue?  Or is this the “norm”, where seemingly the only plan to avoid environmental catastrophe is to make a little noise to try reduce how many animals die in the toxic stew?  This pit was in operation from 1955 to 1982, a 27-year run of productivity, but in the 34 years since mining ceased, what has been done to mitigate the toxic stew that’s been left behind?  It’s an EPA Superfund site, but that designation clearly hasn’t fixed the problem 34 years later.

A mining company profited for 27 years from this pit.  The environmental damage and what’s been left behind will end up taking a toll for a much longer period of time.  We’ve now got a new administration coming into office with an obvious laser-sharp focus on corporate America.  Cabinet appointments to date, stated policies that are being pushed once they take office, a desire to slash regulation and even kill off the EPA…it all typifies that “ME FIRST!”, selfish, greedy, short-term gain mindset that sadly “Trumps” any thought of long-term devastation such as this.  I’ve said it before…I always wonder if people with this kind of mindset have any children, or give a damn about their futures if they do have children.  I can’t ever imagine putting money and short-term well-being over the well-being of future generations.

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