Don’t Mine What’s Ours

How a public-lands populism can fight Trump and the GOP.

Dayton Martindale May 24, 2017

Bears Ears National Monument, designated a monument by Barack Obama in December 2016, may be under threat thanks to Donald Trump and the GOP. (Bureau of Land Management / Flickr)

America’s pub­lic lands, Don­ald Trump told Field and Stream mag­a­zine in Jan­u­ary 2016, are mag­nif­i­cent.”

Among the government’s most popular institutions is one of its most radical experiments in communal ownership and environmental protection.

We have to be great stew­ards,” he intoned. Keep the lands great.” He only just restrained him­self from adding, Some of my best friends are pub­lic lands.”

While he’s very much into frack­ing and drilling,” Trump con­tin­ued, he would only sup­port ener­gy explo­ration that didn’t dam­age the land.” (Of course, extrac­tive indus­tries dam­age the land” almost by def­i­n­i­tion. Even rel­a­tive­ly low-impact coal mines leak pol­lu­tants into ground­wa­ter and can cause sink­holes; frack­ing, for its part, pro­duces poi­so­nous waste­water and requires habi­tat-destroy­ing pipelines.)

Trump also seemed to sug­gest increased fund­ing for land main­te­nance, and — in con­trast to many Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors — opposed trans­fer­ring fed­er­al land to the states, as the states are like­ly to sell it off.

This was smart pol­i­tics. A Jan­u­ary poll of sev­en Moun­tain West states found that only 37 per­cent of vot­ers sup­port ced­ing fed­er­al lands to the states, while 94 per­cent sup­port improv­ing pub­lic-lands infra­struc­ture and 82 per­cent want improved access. Politi­cians, take note: Among the government’s most pop­u­lar insti­tu­tions is one of its most rad­i­cal exper­i­ments in com­mu­nal own­er­ship and envi­ron­men­tal protection.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Trump’s eco­log­i­cal pop­ulism is about as sin­cere as his eco­nom­ic pop­ulism. He has repeat­ed­ly promised to ramp up fos­sil-fuel extrac­tion, and for Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary tapped Rep. Ryan Zinke (R‑Mont.), whose vot­ing record on issues like for­est pro­tec­tion, lead poi­son­ing and nat­ur­al-gas drilling has earned him a life­time score of 4 per­cent from the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers. (He nonethe­less main­tains an out­doorsy image: Zinke arrived for his first day of work astride a horse named Tonto.)

On March 28, Trump signed an exec­u­tive order direct­ing Zinke to amend or with­draw” Obama’s mora­to­ri­um on leas­ing fed­er­al land to coal com­pa­nies. There was no men­tion of avoid­ing dam­age,” or of the fact that only a third of Moun­tain West vot­ers want more coal mines on pub­lic land.

On April 26, anoth­er order prompt­ed Zinke to review nation­al mon­u­ments des­ig­nat­ed over the past 21 years, putting mil­lions of acres at risk. Lands such as these sup­port jobs in the recre­ation and tourism sec­tors, offer much-need­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties for low-cost, low-car­bon leisure, and com­prise crit­i­cal habi­tat for wildlife.

Trump’s orders, then, are a tragedy — and an oppor­tu­ni­ty. In Mon­tana, for exam­ple, a Bernie­crat ban­jo play­er is mount­ing a seri­ous chal­lenge for Zinke’s House seat using land defense as a hook. Savvy pro­gres­sives should fol­low his lead.

The debate over pub­lic lands puts envi­ron­men­tal­ism in its most pos­i­tive light, shift­ing the nar­ra­tive from mate­r­i­al scarci­ty and out-of-work coal min­ers to a diverse and democ­ra­tized com­mons. Any pop­ulism worth its salt must go beyond fights for bare sub­sis­tence, open­ing up space for humans — and oth­ers — to thrive.

On Earth Day, while hun­dreds of thou­sands marched for sci­ence world­wide, Trump reit­er­at­ed his sup­port for forests, lakes and open spaces.” But his feints toward con­ser­va­tion­ism are more sil­ver tongue than sil­ver lin­ing. Were there a sil­ver lin­ing, Trump would be leas­ing it to a min­ing company.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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