Gradattack Podcast #7 Mike Shamo

Podcast #7 – 05/09/2016

Public Lands in Utah and the American West: A History of Conflict and Cooperation.

Mike ShamoMike Shamo

Mike Shamo is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Utah’s American West Center. He stopped by to share some of his research on the history of conflicts over the usage of public lands in the American West, and to give some insight into the origins of land-use policy in a region where few can agree on who should have claim to what.

Download the file here: Public Lands in Utah and the American West: A History of Conflict and Cooperation with Mike Shamo

Patrick Hadley: Hello and welcome to another University of Utah GradAttack Podcast. Today, inspired by recent events in western America, we’re talking about land issues, and particularly debates about the usage of public land, in Utah and the rest of the West. Today we are talking to Mike Shamo, who is a PhD student in History at the University of Utah, working in the American West Center, and Mike has his fingers in a lot of different pots, doing research out here. So Mike, why don’t you tell us briefly what the broad area that you research is in, what you’re writing your dissertation on, and a little something about some of the other research projects you do down in Cedar City and elsewhere.

Mike Shamo: Okay. Well, thank you, Patrick. It is a pleasure to be here, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to have this discussion. One of the reasons why I chose to research these types of issues is that it’s a story of the West that comes about over and over and over again. What I’m doing with my PhD dissertation – the dissertation is entitled “Federal Playgrounds: Tourism Communities on the Colorado Plateau”, and I’m looking at case studies of different gateway communities: Moab, Utah; Telluride, Colorado; and Page, Arizona. Each of these communities thrives and depends on a really vibrant tourism economy, but at the same time, they are ultimately dependent upon federal agencies which administer the land that the tourism is based on: In Moab’s case, obviously that’s Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. In Telluride, Colorado it’s the large ski resort that operates almost entirely on National Forest land; in Page, Arizona Lake Powell is next to it, and is administered by the National Parks Service; and of course, Glenn Canyon Dam and the Navajo Generating Station, which provide a lot of the industrial jobs in Page, are in large part creations of the Bureau of Reclamation, another Interior Department federal agency. And so I look at these complex relationships that these communities have with the federal government, and also at the same time, I look at how they develop sustainable communities. So, as kind of a preface for that, when you talk about the federal government and relationships to local populations, you have to kind of unpeel the onion layers a little bit, because when you’re dealing with the federal government, you’re dealing with different agencies: the National Parks Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Atomic Energy Commission, and a slew of other federal agencies. They all serve different constituencies, they all have different missions, even when they’re in the same federal department. Local communities, likewise, also have different interests and different competing issues, and so you have to unmask those who are in favor of more pro-growth, economic issues, and those who are more in favor of preservation of the environment. So when I talk about sustainability, too, I also develop that on a different level, looking at it in four different categories. Often when we think of sustainability, we think of it only in environmental and economic terms, and certainly, environmental and economic are two important categories for sustainability, but they often seem at odds with each other. The other two categories in addition to environmental and economic sustainability, I also look at social and cultural sustainability, as well.

PH: So when you think just broadly about those at those four categories, what are the ones right now that are in conflict with one another out in the West? I mean, a lot of people are paying attention to, say, the Malheur Standofff just recently, or. as we can talk about here in a minute, the lawsuit by the State of Utah to reclaim public lands. What is the historical basis for the points of contention? How did these competing interests – the different layers of the federal and state governments – come to be in conflict?

MS: Well, that’s the thing. When you talk about the story of the West, it’s really kind of an interesting dynamic because Westerners love to think of themselves as independent and hard-working and self-sufficient. In reality, a lot of these rural communities are ultimately dependent on federal assistance. They need the federal government to administer their land, they need the federal government to pay for development; for these tourism communities, they need the federal government to pay for roads and visitors’ centers and campgrounds and other things that allow these communities to thrive from the tourism economy. But a lot of these communities are dependent ultimately on agriculture or resource-extraction industries, which requires federal investment. A lot of times, with these resource-extraction industries, their primary customer is the federal government. You know, during the uranium boom in southeastern Utah on the Colorado Plateau in the 1950s, the uranium that was being sold was being sold entirely to the federal government. They relied on the federal government for the pricing and also for the demand. So on the one hand, they reach out their hand to federal resources; on the other hand, they shake their fist to the federal government, because with federal agencies administering the land, there often comes regulations, which sometimes curtail a lot of the economic activities that they have. Particularly since the 1960s there has been a major push by the federal government to preserve a lot of land as we have developed a more scientific approach to how we look at the environment, and our understanding of ecology and how different things affect land, air, and water. The federal government, rightly, has taken a larger interest in preserving that land and protecting from overuse. Yet, at the same time, in preserving that land, it often impacts the economic activities on which many communities rely. In Moab and its neighbor, Monticello, Utah, to the south, when Canyonlands was created, on the one hand they saw a lot of opportunities to increase the tourism market, but there were debates with the federal government about how much development would be allowed on Canyonlands, how many roads would be built, for example, and where would they put the roads, and where would they put the park headquarters. In taking away the land so near to them, and at the same time as the uranium boom went away, a lot of that land on which they relied for mining and ranching and other things was locked up in the national park. So, in the national archives I uncovered several letters from residents of these communities begging for roads and begging for park headquarters to be situated in Monticello and begging for the economic boon that the park headquarters would create. So, oftentimes, when the promise to develop that land doesn’t happen because the federal government decides to emphasize environmental sustainability, this often comes with the tradeoff of not helping the economic sustainability.

PH: Okay, but what about the case, in particular, of ranchers, which we’ve been hearing a lot about. What is the history of the conflict there, and how does the federal government step in, on the one hand, to make the ranchers want that help, but on the other hand make them so angry that they’re shaking their fist, or, I guess, in some cases, shaking their automatic weapons? What is going on there, exactly?

MS: Well, I would hope they don’t have automatic weapons. Maybe rifles or something. But no weapons should be used in any regards in any of these issues whatsoever. You know, we’ve got a great history in these country, where we can resolve any conflict that we have peacefully, and that should be first and foremost, where we do try to come up with some sort of compromise that does allow people to use both. That is the impetus behind federal management of the land to begin with. This land always was owned by the federal government. It was never claimed by anybody through the Homestead Act or bought through the General Land Office. Another project that I’m involved in with the American West Center involves research with the National Forest here in Utah. It’s interesting, the story of how National Forests came about here in Utah. Much of it was a grassroots effort from the local communities themselves. Because there was so much overgrazing and so much overuse of the land, it caused a massive erosion and massive flash flood problems in many cities in southern and central Utah. Also with the thousands of head of livestock running around in the forest, it caused pollution that impacted local drinking water and also fields and farms and other things. So there were several petitions by local residents, including ranchers, demanding that the federal government take control of this land and create a process by which everyone could use the land but use it in a way that preserves it and conserves it. And so when we talk about the recent issues – you’re probably, I’m guessing, referring to what’s happened with Cliven Bundy in Nevada – you’ve got public domain, and the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are in charge of administering that land so that everyone gets a fair use of it and everyone is in charge of paying the grazing fees and everybody agrees to the conditions under which they make sure that they don’t have too much livestock on their allotments, that they don’t overgraze too much, so that the resources will be there for the next generation to use. What happens is that, when the federal government comes in and they look at what is best for everybody to resolve conflicts – because it’s not just about environmental sustainability, it’s about social sustainability, as well, and conflicts arise when you’ve got too much sheep and too much cattle coming down the same range, and sheep and cattle don’t often agree with each other particularly because of the way sheep graze and the numbers in which they graze –

PH: Can you explain that a little more closely for our listeners? How do sheep grazing patterns cause this conflict with cattle?

MS: In some of the research that I’ve done with the Manti-La Sal National Forest, in the canyons above Manti and Ephraim, Utah, every summer prior to the designation of the forest there were 300,000 sheep grazing on those canyons.

PH: And when was the forest designated?

MS: It was designated around 1905. The problem that causes is that they had several federal agents that came down and filed reports with photographs looking at the land, where you can see the land just stripped down to the limestone, because the way sheep graze is they just come in and they pull up everything, roots and all. So you’ve got all these artificial gullies that are being created every time a monsoonal thunderstorm hits in late July or Early August, it would cause flash floods to roll giant boulders and debris into Manti and into Ephraim, causing all kinds of problems and issues. And so the reason for the Forest Service stepping in was so they could say, “alright, let’s find a way to make the forest grow again. Let’s find ways to be able to revitalize the forest.” And so they banned sheep for 20 years, they limited how much livestock could be allowed on it and where the livestock could go. Certainly, it’s had a major impact in helping the forest heal itself. You could make a debate as to whether it’s perfect, but you can’t deny that it has had an impact. And so, with regards to the original question about the conflict with cattle and sheep, any time you allow two giant herds of livestock to get into each other and they mingle together, it’s going to cause a social problem. So the federal government has set up an allotment program, where they designate certain areas to certain types of livestock and to certain ranchers so that it’s a fair and open process for everybody. I mean, the National Forest Service motto is “The Land of Many Uses”, and the National Parks Service is for the benefit and enjoyment of all the people, and that’s kinda been the American model. The problems arise when you got small groups of people who tried to dominate the land at the expense of others, and then often blame the federal government for the problems.

PH: Just as a bit of background for our listeners, in 2012 the State of Utah passed a bill seeking the transfer of all public lands, non-National Park lands, owned and operated by the federal government in this state to the state, and because the federal government hasn’t complied with the bill, the state’s just decided to spend 14 million dollars suing the federal government to get those lands returned. Now, a lot of people are in favor of this, a lot of people, especially in rural communities in Utah, are in favor of this proposal, and a lot of people are opposed to it, see it as somehow quixotic. Where, as far as you can tell, does state action fit into the history of Utah and the American West and the attitudes that we see out here in general towards public land? You seem to have a lot more nuanced take on this than a lot of people I talk to.

MS: Because I’m looking at all these different sustainability categories, and because I’m looking at this complex relationship between the federal government and the local government, I want to look at this from every side and understand, because if you focus on one side you’re going to label the other side as “the enemy” or “the other”, and certainly there are reasons for it… Now, with Utah, as with many states in the West, the vast majority of the land is federally owned. In Utah it’s over two-thirds, almost 70% of the land, is owned by the federal government. The reason for that is because the federal government has always owned this land. Nobody has claimed it, nobody has bought it, it was never owned by the state in the first place, it was always owned by the federal government. Therefore the federal government has set the regulations on how it is to be administered. To understand it from the state level, one of the problems that the state has is always getting enough funds to be able to perform all the necessary functions. You know, we are here at the University of Utah, and education is always a huge issue in the state of Utah. Utah has one of the lowest per-pupil rates for education, yet 100% of all income tax in the State of Utah goes directly to education. But it’s not enough. And so the way you make up that difference is you have to get it from property taxes – well, when 70% of your land is federally owned, and therefore you can’t tax it, that creates a very small amount that you’re able to tax and able to get enough resources from. So there have been agreements with the state and the federal government by which they’re allowed to sell mineral leases and ranching permits, and others by which any economic activity that occurs on these designated lands, a portion of it can go back to the states. But it depends on the different federal agency that you’re dealing with, and who’s in charge of that agency, and their attitude toward the West, and whatever national party they’re a part of, that may or may not have an impact on it, as oftentimes when there’s a new national monument, as is being debated about in southeastern Utah. That will, again, take up more land that the state relies upon. But also, when you’re talking about local populations, you’re talking about their livelihoods and their resources that they rely upon. If there’s a national monument, obviously it will have an impact on whether or not people can graze on that land anymore, even though it was public domain before. It certainly would eliminate any resource extraction, you know – oil, mining, natural gas, things like that. You know, historians are very good at pointing out problems, we’re not very good at solving them, because we look at the past, we don’t look at the future. And when you look at the past, you can see why there has been conflict that has arisen from these issues. You can see why, on both sides, they make very compelling cases, but they make it from their standpoint: Is it more important to preserve the environment, or is it more important to provide for people’s livelihoods, or to protect somebody’s way of life, or to make sure that there’s no social conflict that occurs. And so, where does federal authority get involved in that, and what involvement should local people have on federal policy? That’s another issue that we’re dealing with when we talk about federal and local relationships? In this idea of federalism, the local communities have a lot of input.

PH: Sure. And what about, for example, Native American tribes, as well? There are a number, especially in southern Utah. Is that something that also comes up when you do the historical research?

MS: Native Americans, I think, play a much greater role in my chapters on Page, Arizona because Page was part of a federal land exchange with the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Indian Reservation. And so you’re dealing with a tourism community that’s right there as part of the reservation. And, as we were talking about before the interview, one of the sources of conflict you’ve got there is the large, coal-burning plant just outside of Page that is entirely on Navajo reservation land. That’s the Navajo Generating Station. The Navajo Generating Station and the Black Mesa Coal Mine, which fuels that power plant, are a major source of revenue not only for the Navajo Nation, but also for the Hopi tribe. Well over 50%, I think, for both tribes, they rely on the royalties that come from both the power plant and the coal mines. In addition to that, it provides them with jobs, it provides them with training and educational opportunities, but, you know, it’s a coal-burning plant. It pollutes. There’s a large amount of sulfur dioxide that’s poured out of that plant. A quarter of that plant’s owning interest is with the Bureau of Reclamation – they use the power that is generated from that plant to run their central Arizona project, which pumps water from Lake Havasu to large metropolitan areas like Phoenix and Tucson. But because those large sulfur dioxide clouds often find themselves over Lake Powell and over other national parks environments and, depending on where the prevailing winds are coming from, even over the Grand Canyon. So it creates conflict with the NPS, who is worried about the overall visitor experience. The Grand Canyon’s no fun to see when it’s all smogged over. But at the same time, they’re worried about the health of the people who visit those places. Your original question about Native Americans is, from the Navajo Nation’s perspective, maybe, on Window Rock, this is certainly a benefit, but it’s a benefit that comes with major drawbacks. Part of those drawbacks is, with the Black Mesa mine, there’s a lot of land that has been lost, a lot of people who lived there and ranched their sheep there, who can no longer live there. A lot of the wells have dried up because at one time there was a big slurry pipeline that used a lot of the groundwater to ship coal via slurry pipeline from the Black Mesa over to the Mojave Power Plant in Laughlin, Nevada, which has since closed down. So, again, there are environmental issues, there are economic issues to consider, and social and cultural issues. For the Navajo, this was their native homeland. This was a lot of sacred sites that were destroyed on this Black Mesa. How do you balance these issues? And where does the federal government come in to provide both the needs for power in the growing American Southwest, in comparison to the environmental destruction that occurs and the social disruptions. On one hand, it provides jobs and benefits to the Navajo Nation, but on the other, it can destroy cultural opportunities. Even on the Navajo Nation there’s a lot of divide over these issues, as well.

PH: So land use problems haven’t gone away since at least when your dissertation research began. And they’re probably not going to go away any time in the near future. Before we began this interview you used a quote – and I don’t want to misquote you, but it was, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but you sometimes get echoes.”

MS: Yeah, that was something that my advisor, Dr. Robert Goldberg, always tells me. He says, “I don’t believe that history repeats itself, but it echoes an awful lot.” And everyone one of these issues that we’re talking about, the details are different, the unique relationships between federal agencies and local communities are different, but it’s part of a much larger picture. You said you wanted to focus on conflicts, and there are certainly conflicts that arise, because a lot of these keep compounding themselves over and over and over again. But at the same time, there’s a lot of cooperation that occurs between local governments and local residents and the federal government, in which they rely upon federal resources.

PH: Do you think that’s going to be the future for these conflicts? Which was going to be my next question, to ask you to be a bit more of a Nostradamus than you are clearly comfortable being. But do you think that conflict or cooperation is going to be the echo we get in the future?

MS: Well I think that what’s going to have to happen in order to alleviate these conflicts, there’s going to have to be some sort of understanding from both national interests and also local needs. And so both of them are going to have to discuss together and come to some sort of cooperation between them all. You know, I don’t know, often because there is so much overlap and so much conflict between all these different sustainability categories, I don’t think there’s going to be a plan that’s going to be perfect, and there are going to be people who will be upset. And that will ensure that these conflicts will continue on in the future. But at the same time, in order to create a workable system, I think you’re going to have to get a little more cooperation than is currently happening.

PH: Okay. Thank you very much, Mike Shamo of the American West Center here at the University of Utah. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you, and I, for one, am very excited to read your dissertation when it comes across my desk. Thank you.

MS: Thank you.