In the northwestern corner of New Mexico, inside a makeshift cave deep within a winding canyon, there is a spiral carved into the sandstone.
The giant slabs of rock that create the cave were set by human hands nearly a thousand years ago. Positioned to let a small dagger of sunlight through, they are one of the oldest man-made timepieces on the continent.
The Pueblo people who built the “Sun Dagger” to gauge solstices and other astral events also hewed a massive trading empire out of the harsh landscape that is now the American southwest. Nearby Pueblo Bonito was the largest building in North America until the late 1800s.
Today, a national park protects Chaco Canyon from the predatory fingers of mining companies and oil drillers. But beyond the park boundary, precious lands stuffed with Chacoan ruins and still home to Navajo families have been leased out to mining and drilling companies for decades. The heavy roadways constructed to connect these leasing parcels have criss-crossed the hundreds of square miles of archaeological evidence of Chacoan culture that still remain after a millennium.
All but 9 percent of publicly-owned land in this corner of New Mexico has been leased out for industrial profit. In late January, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold another four drilling leases at auction, despite prolonged protest from native people who still live there, conservationists who fear the permanent destruction of something precious, and local businesses that make their money from interacting with this landscape rather than ripping it apart.
The parcels leased in January are 20-odd miles from the edge of the park and do not threaten Chaco Canyon itself. But the process by which these taxpayer-owned patches of land were auctioned off is worrying for the outdoor outfitters and hunting guides whose financial interests are in tension with a drilling company’s needs. And for the few pockets of Navajo who still make their homes in the area, the ongoing sale of industrial leases threatens to destroy their way of life in a more fundamental way.
“They should be making those decisions in a way that doesn’t pick winners and losers.”
“Folks who live out there have such a great level of concern about more and more development,” local archaeologist Paul Reed said, “because they’re not getting the opportunity to say, ‘This area that doesn’t look like anything to you is in fact very important to us and we’d like you not to build anything there.’”
It doesn’t have to happen this way. Sportsmen, tribal groups, and extraction industry firms do not have to be at each other’s throats.
In fact, until recently, the alternative approach — a slow, thoughtful push for mutually beneficial compromise based on a broader understanding of the land’s value and the community’s best interests — seemed to be taking hold across the BLM’s immense portfolio of public lands.
But now, this desert country, its people, and its history are a fragile backdrop to one of the most overlooked philosophical wars between Donald Trump’s new regime and Barack Obama’s old one. Republicans are already trying to undo the most obvious but perhaps least heralded element of Obama’s push to revive community consensus in public policy.
“You can’t just put an oil rig in a vacuum”
Right now, the anti-community backlash is notching wins.
The Republican House majority voted last Wednesday to override a Bureau of Land Management regulation dictating increased public input into its planning processes for doling out leases to oil, natural gas, and mineral extraction companies on land owned by the American people. The measure would allow Trump to discard the Obama-era emphasis on community input entirely.
Overturning the rule would allow Trump’s team to ignore years of careful progress toward communal decisionmaking on oil, gas, and mining decisions across the American west.
BLM began instituting a separate “Master Leasing Plan” (MLP) process in 2010, founded on comprehensive input, community meetings, and compromise-driven outcomes. It was a rousing success in Utah’s Moab wilderness, home to the iconic Arches National Park whose dizzying crags have become an international visual code for “America.” Similar cooperative work helped revitalize a sense of mutual respect and understanding in the southwestern Oregon communities, which gained unwanted fame last winter when armed outsiders seized federal buildings and tried to provoke an armed standoff.
MLP processes have no formal legislative protections without the BLM’s regulatory requirements around public input. If they are repealed, the Trump administration can tuck the MLP process into a drawer and do whatever it wants — or rather, whatever the extraction industry’s lobbyists want.
“One thing about drilling proposals near national parks in general is they imbalance economic activity. They basically say to everybody who needs those public lands for their business to prosper, ‘The oil industry is more important,’” said Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project.
Saeger, like every conservation-minded person ThinkProgress interviewed for this story, believes some amount of drilling and mining should be allowed — and that the legislation that created BLM requires the agency to say “yes” to certain extraction industry projects.
But how the agency decides when to say yes and when to say no makes a huge difference to the economic and ecological balance of western communities — and, ultimately, to the quality of life for Americans who make their homes there.
“They should be making those decisions in a way that doesn’t pick winners and losers, that doesn’t rig the system for oil companies,” Saeger told ThinkProgress. “You can’t just put an oil rig in a vacuum. You have to connect it to the rest of the energy infrastructure and that means building roads and a lot of other things that have impacts well beyond the parcel of land that’s actually being drilled.”
“The right way at the beginning or the right way at the end”
BLM knows exactly how to cultivate public input to balance out industry perspectives. The MLP process and related regulatory reforms now threatened by Congress enshrine the idea that BLM-managed lands have value beyond the fuels and minerals beneath them. By putting outdoor recreation enthusiasts, naturalists, and archaeologists on an even footing with more influential industries, the agency’s reforms guaranteed that managers would have a concrete grasp of the seemingly abstract value of leaving land undisturbed.
“Ideally you get everyone into a single room for a series of meetings to hammer out compromises that would allow access to resources like natural gas but would also protect the areas that native groups and wilderness groups are most concerned about,” said Reed, whose organization Archaeology Southwest has been working to preserve historic sites in places like Chaco for a quarter-century. “The idea is everybody wins at least part of what they want, and the most sensitive local areas get protected, families living on those lands get protected, and we still have oil and gas being produced.”
Such balanced land use also saves communities in the area from reliance on the boom-and-bust economic cycles of fuel production, Reed added.
Inclusive, deliberative processes that convene the whole community of stakeholders benefit the extraction industries, too. Although it’s slower, building in those front-end delays is generally much cheaper than confronting the back-end conflicts invited by a so-called “industry-friendly” approach to public land management decisions, Park Rangers for Our Lands co-founder Ellis Richard said.
“Before the Master Leasing Plan process, often these conflicts would end up in court. Somebody would sue somebody,” said Richard, a 30-year veteran of the Parks Service who now works to promote balanced land management near sensitive parks like Chaco.“They’d lease lands to oil and gas, ranchers or environmentalists would step up and object, they wouldn’t feel they had been listened to, and they would sue.”
By openly courting input from outdoorsmen, tribal groups, agricultural interests, and local residents, BLM’s revised process gave everyone involved a chance to feel heard — and gave BLM itself an opportunity to pick and choose leasing parcels that would not create conflict between an oil company and the people whose livelihoods are directly affected by permanent changes to the landscape.
“You can do it the right way at the beginning or you can do it the right way at the end,” said Richard. “If you wait to the end, it’s millions of dollars in court costs and it’s years down the road.”
In theory, the public has a voice in planning decisions so long as public officials from state, city, and county governments are involved. But the people who end up in those representative positions often land in the pockets of the profit-hungry oil, gas, and mining companies. They have “a history of closed-door meetings and cozy ties with industry,” as Saeger’s organization puts it, pointing to the example of Garfield County, Colorado, where the county commission paid an industry-friendly scientist to produce research contradicting the scientific consensus underlying opposition to oil and gas projects in the area.
The neighborliness of public land management meetings may seem like an odd venue for the new White House regime to apply Trumpian tactics.
But restricting public input and shrinking the number of voices that count are core tactics for an autocrat, across all matters of executive authority. “Leaders should rely on as few people as possible to stay in power,” as political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith wrote in a 2011 column summarizing the key lessons of their book The Dictator’s Handbook.
Cooperative land-use processes in the greater American West are among the White House’s administration’s softer targets. Trump’s assaults on the Muslim community, the working class, and immigrant communities are more obvious and draw greater outcry. But Republicans are also launching a broad attack on the very idea of community itself.
“If you wait to the end, it’s millions of dollars in court costs and it’s years down the road.”
President Obama made concerted, gradual efforts to make government processes more inclusive. Rather than invoking the state’s top-down authority to tell people how things are going to be, Obama put pressure on insiders to consider the input of the people they wish to lead.
Such inclusion is a core value of open, democratic society, political scientist Michael Cummings of UC-Denver told ThinkProgress. But inclusion and communal consensus also tend to slow things down and act in direct tension to the short-term profit interests of a society’s most influential actors.
“When Winston Churchill said that ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,’ he was implicitly positing that the long-term value of community input — e.g., more freedom, equality, justice, and accountability, resulting in a greater long-term public good — outweighs ‘the process costs of inclusivity,’ i.e. democracy’s short-term inefficiencies,” Cummings wrote in an email.
When a country abandons the principle that communal input creates value, it becomes a rigged system where only powerful voices count, he said, “even when the system is nominally democratic.”
It makes sense that Trump — a man who told voters, “Only I can fix it” — would want to restore the old fast-track system of governance controlled by insiders, as his party is already looking to do in land use policy. But the move comes with political risk as well.
The western U.S. is full of hunters, anglers, tourism-dependent outfitters, and service industry outfits. Many of those Americans voted for Donald Trump; all of them are targets of the modern GOP’s rhetorical fairytale about an America where coastal elites are permanently at war with the rustic heartland folk.
“Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud is Trump’s impulsivity and tendency to undermine himself by antagonizing friends and foes alike,” Cummings said.
If the White House opts for making American land management predatory again, in defiance of local concern, it may end up harvesting an angry political crop.