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Op-ed: Tell the truth about monuments and parks in Utah

Randall Lanza of Salt Lake City chants "Save Our Sacred Lands" during President Trump’s national announcement to eliminate vast portions of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.
Randall Lanza of Salt Lake City chants "Save Our Sacred Lands" during President Trump’s national announcement to eliminate vast portions of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It’s no question Utah’s public lands are perhaps the most underrated in the country by our state’s decision-makers. These places are constantly thrown under the bus by politicians who misinform the public about the value of Native American history while favoring certain industries over others. With the recent largest attack on public lands in history and Trump’s decision to effectively remove Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, it’s absolutely urgent to communicate the true story about our state’s public lands.

The context of this public land misinformation runs deep, and recent voices on the national scale are certainly amplifying it. This new administration is joining forces with our profit-driven state officials in driving an all-out attack on Utah’s public lands. And, unfortunately, the motives of interest groups continue dictating our priorities. Where other states are deciding what places to protect for future generations and cultural value, we’re looking at all the possible locations to drill. Nationally, what began with a “review” of 27 national monument designations has spiraled into budget cuts for our environmental departments and threats of fossil fuel destruction on some of our most important wildlands. Most recently, that also includes nearly doubling the price for entry into our national parks, including Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Arches.

Utah is ground zero when it comes to blatant disrespect for native peoples and complete disregard for visitors who pour billions into our recreation economy. It’s time for the voices — those who truly respect our state’s history and value of our natural gems — to come together in saying enough is enough.

As the newest director of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, I see more clearly than ever that our state’s decision-makers have it out for our public lands. They’ve been ignoring the many residents who benefit from these places while propping destructive industry. Despite our beautiful landscapes and the hundreds of millions of visitors they attract, Utah’s public lands are still disproportionately targeted.

Luckily, the information is out there. In Grand County alone, tourism and recreation — driven by Arches and Canyonlands national parks — remain the No. 1 industry and employ over 47 percent of residents. These numbers don’t lie, but our state leaders, now with the help of this backward administration, continue pushing a false narrative about our public lands.

In Bears Ears specifically, archaeologists actively joined Tribal Nations in fighting for its designation — noting over 10,000 fossil sites. When compared with some of our nation’s most popular national parks, the monument exceeds them in cultural value and matches up for every environmental-rich indicator.

Selling off public lands to out-of-state and foreign companies and making our national parks much more expensive will not drive financial well-being in Utah. Instead, we will be left with only remnants of important history and disincentivize future investment in a trampled state.

It’s also clear our state officials and administration don’t want to address the maintenance backlog — their facade for increasing fees in our parks. That’s obvious when considering their mission to remove protections on these places entirely. But we have to remember that what’s at stake isn’t just a few untouched places. It’s centuries of culture and an outdoor legacy — where rollbacks on protections would disproportionately affect Native Americans.

To put it frankly: People won’t be attracted to states with a serious lack of cultural value and respect for centuries of Native American history. They certainly won’t come to see drill rigs, wells and ruined landscapes.

Instead of inviting in destructive industry and shipping profits out of state, we should be investing and advertising our public lands for all visitors. We must cherish cultural heritage for Native Americans with permanent protections on these places. We cannot stand for the stripping of national monument designations — ones that reached across Tribal Nations and group sovereignty. We cannot price out communities from national parks. If we continue undermining our outdoor legacy in Utah and refuse to fight for protection on public lands, we’ll only discriminate and risk our values as a state completely — affecting our history, economy and future generations.

Ashley Soltysiak is the director of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter.