Las Vegas Sun

December 12, 2018

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Guest column:

History repeating itself in West

President Donald Trump seems inclined to repeat mistakes of past presidents; now, perhaps, access to natural resources by extraction-oriented special interests may be another. This goes beyond the resizing of national monuments to a new openness to oil, gas and coal leasing on public lands. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has recommended Gold Butte National Monument be reduced in size and made no recommendation for Basin and Range National Monument.

I’m a forester by training and understand the importance of actually utilizing natural resources. Preservation and use have to be balanced. At the same time, there is a long history of greed driving access to the public lands and I have to wonder how much of that is playing out right now in Utah. There are dozens of stories of public lands controversies, ranging over more than a hundred years, which seem to resemble the current push for more use. Three of them follow.

• Hetch Hetchy was a valley in Yosemite National Park and the site of the first major battle of the new conservation movement of the early 20th century. John Muir considered its natural beauty to surpass Yosemite Valley, while San Francisco coveted it as a source of a much-needed water. That required a dam, but those are off-limits in a national park. The aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake presented an urgent need, and the dam was approved in 1908. Muir led a seven-year battle to stop it. The dam won, helping spur establishment of the National Park Service in 1916.

• Just like today, the vast resources of Alaska have attracted exploiters. In 1907, investors attempted to enforce suspicious claims on thousands of acres of coal fields. The claims were disputed and investigated during the period when administrations changed from Theodore Roosevelt to William Howard Taft. The new Interior secretary pushed for approval of the coal claims, was accused of colluding with investors and resigned in 1911. Partly as a result of the controversy, Roosevelt ran for president against Taft as the candidate of the Bull Moose Party, splitting the vote, and allowing Woodrow Wilson to be elected.

• In the early 20th century naval oil reserves were established in Wyoming at Teapot Dome and in California. After the 1920 election, Warren Harding chose New Mexico Sen. Albert Fall as secretary of the Interior, making it clear public lands would be developed.

Fall managed to get the naval oil reserves under the control of his department, and in 1922 drilling rights were leased to private companies without competitive bidding. Eventually investigations showed that the secretary had taken bribes from oil interests to open the fields. Fall qualifies as the first Cabinet-level official to serve jail time for a felony committed while in office. Prior to the Watergate scandal, Teapot Dome was generally considered the most sensational example of high-level corruption in U.S. political history.

• Both Ronald Reagan and his Interior secretary, James G. Watt, had a strong disposition toward weakening federal land management in the West. Watt was one of President Reagan’s most controversial cabinet members, even managing to open up vast amounts of land to coal mining companies and liberalizing off-shore oil drilling. Watt ended up resigning because President Reagan needed a “different type of leadership.”

Presidents have often found the balance between use and preservation of public lands isn’t as apparent as Western self-interest makes it seem. Championing use makes sense, but only if safeguards promoting conservation are part of the mix. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Utah. History does repeat itself.

Thomas Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.