Playing with Fire: Rob Bishop's Sputtering Sagebrush Rebellion

Rob Bishop speaks at a press conference in 2008 | Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A kangaroo court is trailing its way through the American West. Its self-appointed judge is Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and national forests. He and his congressional cronies are trying to rile up the region by denouncing the Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the president powers to create national monuments on public lands of special significance; slapping out at the Endangered Species Act, for its alleged crippling of lumbering and mining and ranching; and rousing Republicans against the Obama administration by raising the rebel flag of anti-federalism.

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They are staging meetings in places like tiny Escalante, Utah; Washington State's Olympic Peninsula; and in Sacramento, enlisting sympathetic speakers to re-chant Bishop's convictions that the nation's public lands ought to be under state control; that national environmental laws ought to be scrapped. Yet although these are invitation-only affairs, so that the congressman does not have to open himself up to spontaneous dialogs with citizens, he has not been able to shut off all debate.

If you have missed this story, then Bishop's mission has already failed. If you're yawning, because you suspect you've heard his threadbare arguments before, you are correct. And those responses collectively make it clear why the ruckus that Bishop et al. hoped to touch off hasn't caught fire.

Start with the president's pre-trip concession that took the wind out of Representative Bishop's cause before the congressman even sailed west from Washington. According to the Washington Post, President Obama agreed not to establish any new national monuments during the final year of his current term. That left Bishop with this limp justification for spending taxpayer money to lead a hobby-horse charge against a non-existent issue: "I take them at their word, but I don't want another Clinton to ever do it again."

Former President Bill Clinton signs an order creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with the Grand Canyon as his backdrop | Photo: LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images
There's the rub: lacking a real-time foe, Rob Bishop is trying to revive old grievances against President Bill Clinton's surprise creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996. Using the Antiquities Act authorizations, Clinton had announced its establishment not in Democratic-hostile Utah but in Arizona, with the Grand Canyon as his backdrop. His was something of a campaign stunt to generate electoral support in Arizona (it may have worked). But it irritated Utahans, a goodly number of whom believed that the new national monument's legal status robbed them of the opportunity to exploit its natural resources as they saw fit.

This explains why Bishop launched his roaming tribunal in Escalante. And why he must have been happy when the town's mayor parroted his claims that the national monument was a job-killer: "I wish I could say it was a great economic boon for our community," Jerry Taylor testified, "but I cannot."

Others could, and did. Taylor's and Bishop's synchronized arguments, for instance, were met with a two-pronged rebuttal, the bases for which reflect the significant shift since 1996 in the structure of the west's economy. Steve Roberts, who owns Escalante Outfitters, a back-country recreational company located in Escalante, refuted the mayor's claims; even in the lousy economy, his business continues to expand: "It's just grown to be a very important part of the economy, and it's all because more and more people are discovering Grand Staircase-Escalante."

Roberts' conviction that this particular national monument has been a boon to the local economy reflects a broader alteration in the pattern of development in the rural west. So confirmed Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonpartisan research group in Montana which assessed the economic prospects of 17 western communities adjacent to those national monuments that had been established post-1990. It released its findings to coincide with Bishop's hearings and they challenge his operating assumptions.

Take the region around Grand Staircase-Escalante.The data reveals that local population rose by 8%; jobs grew by 38%; and personal income by 40%. These growth rates were consistent from one site to another. Said Ray Rasker, Headwaters' executive director: "In every instance, there was greater employment, greater personal income and greater per capita income after the creation of the monument. In no case did we find that the creation of a national monument led to an economic downturn."

Oops: by not doing his homework, Bishop raises serious concerns about his credibility.

But getting the truth right is not really his central concern. Bishop's ambition is to pin President Obama down while sparking yet another round of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellions that periodically have flared up since the early 20th-century. Every 10 to 15 years or so, western politicians have used the national forests and parks as anvils on which to hammer out their anti-Washington anxieties.

Coyote Natural Bridge at Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument | Photo by Flickr user caddymob, used under a Creative Commons License

The Presidents Roosevelt adroitly handled the uptick in western hostility, as did Truman and Eisenhower. President Reagan got out in front of the rumble, leaving it to George H. W. Bush to push back hard when blustering Nevada county commissioners violated federal laws governing the public lands. Similar illegal actions are currently threatened throughout New Mexico; sheriffs there and in California have vowed not to arrest violators of federal law, a shocking dereliction of their duty that is a result of and a response to the kind of anger that Bishop hopes to exploit. The Utah representative, then, comes from a long line of disaffected--a disaffection that is also highly affected--senators and representatives, governors and county commissioners who from time to time have risen up in opposition to federal ownership and management of the public lands.

Like them, Bishop will make a bit of mischief, maybe sway a voter or two, but will not secure the kind of states-rights victory he putatively desires. He will not because the Supreme Court, dating back to a series of key cases in 1911 (about which I have written before), determined that the Executive Branch has the legal right to regulate its lands.

His fulminations against the Antiquities Act will be as inconsequential. Indeed, Bishop's attacks on it place him in the funny position of arguing that past presidents have usurped legislative authority that the legislature has bestowed on them!

He's tying himself in knots in another way. The ever-astute Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman, recently blogged that the Utah congressman's anti-public lands campaign might backfire: instead of stripping the president of his powers embodied in the Antiquities Act, he might push Obama to act as did Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter.

When the former greatly expanded the Grand Teton National Monument into a massive national park, Wyoming's fury was abated with an agreement that the Antiquities Act would no longer be applicable to the Cowboy State. A similar exemption occurred in Alaska 30 years later. In 1978, with the stroke of his pen, Carter created 56 million acres of national monuments there, a figure that soared to 79 million acres two years later with the enactment of the Alaska Lands Act.

What if Obama followed suit? What if he designated some "large, perhaps locally unpopular, national monuments in one or all of the states before giving in to an exemption. I'm sure that's not what Bishop and other Republicans who have been pressing this issue expect."

I'm sure they haven't anticipated another, much-more immediate result of Bishop's antics. His grandstanding rhetoric, for all its appeal to the Republican base, is having an equally striking impact on those who believe that our public lands are treasures best preserved by the nation for the nation. Bishop is firing up the Sierra Club, NRDC, and the Center for Biological Diversity, along a host of like-minded local grassroots organizations across the west, to rally in defense of these protected landscapes.

The Utah congressman, in short, is doing for Obama what the president has proved incapable of doing for himself--reenergizing the environmental movement understandably dispirited by the president's feckless policies that have undercut clean-air regulations, compromised endangered-species protections, and disregarded the public's health.

Bishop, whose avowed goal is to make Obama a one-term president, may wind up helping him remain in the White House--rough justice for a kangaroo courtier.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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