Deadbeat cowboys, faith, racism, dark money – and hope

January 14, 2018, Torrey

Inter-Tribal-Logo-Brown-on-white-300x300_0316-e1459542189197Here in the West it is cowboys and Indians again. Or still. Time is finally running out for the cowboys.

Cliven Bundy and his deadbeat cowboy clan remain free, still owing the United States over $1 million in federal conviction fines and grazing fees, and still illegally trespassing his cows on desiccated public land. Trump came to Utah in December and signed away some two million acres of national monuments, the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history. Utah has lost the lucrative Outdoor Retailer convention.  As our politicians disgracefully cheer, Gallup reports that 61% of Mormons approved of Trump in 2017.

I am trying to figure out what gives.

I live in Utah, my kids were born here, my brother is buried here. My family goes back to the handcart pioneers. Utah is as beautiful as any place on the planet. We are magnificently endowed with an unparalleled landscape at the intersection of the Great Basin, the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau. It is a thrill and exquisite honor to pursue life, love and liberty here. The land is a local, national and global treasure, by far the best thing about living and working in Utah. Yet it might not be so for long.

Why are we trying so hard to give away and mangle this fragile, exotic, gorgeous place? Utah is currently ground zero of a carefully orchestrated, well financed and long term public land heist. Utah’s elected officials are aiding and abetting the thieves that are robbing us. Much of the Mormon population is being cynically duped. Their faith is being used to blindside them while their pocket is being picked of our nation’s heritage. How we respond, right now, to this malevolent threat will determine who we are what we leave behind for our posterity.

In The Nation last month, Jimmy Tobias has a revealing piece about the far-right campaign to undermine America’s conservation system. Tobias illustrated how Trump’s decree to hack off over 2 million acres from Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

. . . was the result of a savvy, multiyear campaign by a network of far-right organizations with powerful friends in Washington and financial backing from dark-money funds tied to the billionaire Koch brothers and their political kin.

Led by organizations like Utah’s Sutherland Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, and an array of allies, this network has labored assiduously over the last few years to undermine the legitimacy of federal lands across the American West. It has done this, in part, by working to erode public support for key conservation laws and institutions, including the Antiquities Act of 1906. And it has had great success.

Trump’s trip to Utah, his decision to destroy the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante monuments, is a consequence of that deeper, long-game campaign to chip away at America’s conservation system.

This campaign is being financed from dark-money funds tied to the billionaire Koch brothers and their extraction industry cronies. The Kochs and their cronies do not give a hoot about Mormonism and our gorgeous West. They covert our public lands and they are buying and playing Utah’s politicians like puppets.

All of Utah’s elected federal officials are Mormon, as is the state’s governor. As such they have a vulnerability to cynical manipulation. The Mormon fundamentalist thinks God gave the West solely to them and they resent what they see as federal interference in how they use it. The Kochs are out to convince them they are oh so right.

In the Mormon faith, Utah and the Intermountain West is the land they were given by sacred revelation to establish their Zion. Cliven Bundy is a kind of extreme Mormon fundamentalist and has contrived elaborate conspiracy theories of how the U.S. Constitution will be saved by the likes of him while it is “hanging by a thread.” He has it worked out that the Constitution is a sacred document and that, in an echo of western water rights, it bestows permanent rights on the first (white) settlers to put the land to “beneficial use.” Thus, both God and country are on his side. I am told by a friend who spent time with the Bundy’s during the Malheur standoff, that their pitch to fellow ranchers is made in an exact parallel to a Mormon missionary pitch. This Zionism is the last remnants of the 19th century’s lamentable manifest destiny movement. It is an archaic notion that has no home in the New West.

Then there is the racism involved. When Bundy refers to endowed rights of first settlers you might wonder what he thinks of the Indians who were here long before his ancestors. You already heard on national TV during his armed standoff of U.S. law enforcement at Bunkerville how he often wonders if black people wouldn’t be better off as slaves, “there on the plantation with their families and chickens.” The Mormon church has until recently been a white church. Blacks could not hold the priesthood until 1978. The Book of Mormon is a story of Nephites who were the white descendants of a lost tribe of Israel in the Americas and Lamenites who were the native American Indians. Until 1981 the Book of Mormon spoke of the Lamenites as “a dark, filthy, and loathsome people” who were cursed by God with a “skin of blackness.” The text went on to explain how they would become “white and delightsome” when they repent and accept the Mormon gospel. Native Americans were not granted the right to vote in Utah until 1957. Bears Ears National Monument is the product of a unique alliance of five Indian nations and Utah politicians are furiously against it.

Finally, along with Koch dark money, Zionism, and lingering racism, there is the strange sense of environmentalism somehow being a bad thing to the modern day rank and file Mormon. It seems they have accepted the extraction industry false dichotomy between jobs and conservation. Somehow it has become a Republican platform plank that it is trees against people.

Here is my take: There is hope.


Many of today’s white, male, Mormon, federally elected Republican officials from Utah are isolating themselves out on a limb which they are vigorously sawing off. They have a backward, fellow fundamentalists’ sympathy for Bundy. Indeed, what else explains how in this same “law and order” part of the country that sends Tim DeChristopher straight to the federal penitentiary for trying to conserve BLM land that somehow Bundy can successfully defy 25 years of federal court convictions, fines, orders to remove his cows trespassing on BLM land, and two armed federal standoffs.  (In conservation circles this has long been known as the “Hatch effect” as in Orrin in his cowboy hat at the levers of power.)

The  public, including most Mormons, are not fully or even mostly with these backward looking officials. The Mormons I know are very kind and decent people. Disrespecting Indians and tearing up our own backyard is not what they are about. While Mormons in general are perhaps overly respectful of current authority, individually they are sick of Trump and not happy with their representatives obsequious posture before him. The Mormon Church has officially disavowed the position of the Bundys.  And the Church is being admirably environmental with many of their new buildings. There are churches along the Wasatch Front that are Leeds Platinum certified extolling their leadership in efficient energy use and environmental design. To build to Leeds Platinum quality is expensive and is not undertaken by accident. Here in Torrey, a rebuilt sandstone Mormon chapel has carefully crafted down-lighting in its parking lots, helping to protect our precious dark skies.

Monolithic obstacles do fall. Slavery. Women’s suffrage. The Berlin Wall. Gay marriage. Imagine if (when) the official Mormon Church came out and overtly started supporting environmentalism and enlightened stewardship of our public lands. They would join the 98 percent of the 2.8 million who commented in favor of maintaining our national monuments in an immensely popular move. Utahns and the public do not want to give up our land to the Kochs. And we are sick to death of treating American Indians with gross disrespect.

Change is coming. Work for it with optimism, and be prepared for it when it comes.




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