From a city skyscraper in downtown Salt Lake City, a small staff of workers has been orchestrating the dismantling of Utah’s 13 national monuments and parks. This urban setting, 400 miles from Bears Ears National Monument is the home to the Sutherland Institute.
Their social media accounts (Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) stand out as the sole voice for the opposition to Utah’s highly popular 13 national monuments and parks. From this urban office, they produced YouTube videos filled with anti-monument saccharine-filled marketing, a quick internet searches reveals them as the only dissenting voice on this “controversy” willing to produce media content in opposition of the national parks and monuments in the United States. Simply put the Sutherland Institute is the only face I could find that voices opposition to American’s national park system in Utah.
I wanted to know why?
You might be thinking that the Sutherland Institute gets its funding from dirty mining interests. Companies clambering to get into the bountiful coal, oil and gas resources locked away within these national parks and monuments. As a geologist, and professor of geology at Utah State University, I know a few things about natural resources and oil and gas exploration. I teach college students in Utah how to look for oil and natural gas, and coal. And I can tell you that there is little in the way of fossil fuel-resources within Bears Ears National Monument. Utah’s newest monument, that is at the heart of the Sutherland Institute opposition.
Utah has 13 national monuments and parks within its borders that draws in record numbers of visitors. In 2015, an estimated 300 million people visited these parks from all around the world. And these parks and monuments are one of the major drivers of Utah’s economy.
Utah’s first national monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, called Natural Bridges National Monument. In 2016 President Barak Obama expanded the boundaries of this monument into a larger area called Bears Ears National Monument, in cooperation with the Utah Diné Bikéyah (pronounced Din-ub B-kaya) which had been advocating for its formation for many years, with the support of the five major tribes of Utah, the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Mountain Ute, and Ute Tribe the national monument was designated following the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Bears Ears National Monument is unique in its rich ancient pueblo ruins, and deep history going back thousands of years of occupation by Native American groups. It is also home to spectacular geology and amazing fossils. But oddly it does not contain much in the way of coal, natural gas, or oil within its boundaries.
The Aneth Oil Field lays completely to the east of Comb Ridge, a prominent north-south trending ridge that marks the eastern most extent of the monument. No producing oil well exist within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, the nearest historical oil wells are the abandon Butler Wash and Cottonwood Creek.
Within the monument, the geologic landscape is composed of three visually spectacular rock layers; the Permian Cedar Mesa Sandstone (forming rock arches in the heart of the monument), the red and yellow rocks of the Triassic Chinle Formation, and the visually stunning Jurassic Glen Canyon Group of wind swept yellow and white sandstones, that make the bear’s ears on the mountain top. These units don’t contain ore-quality gold, silver, other metals or even potash, rather they are composed of sand grains.
The only minable resource within Bears Ears is uranium oxide locked up in the Triassic Chinle Formation, which value is highly reduced from the 1950’s uranium rush. Simply put, it is not the energy and mining industries targeting this national monument, as there is little interest in mining within the boundaries of Bears Ears. Rather all this opposition comes from the singular entity: the Sutherland Institute.
Why is the Sutherland Institute so opposed to the national park system in Utah?
To understand why the Sutherland Institute opposes national monuments (and in particular Utah’s newest national monument), you have to look at the other causes they support, banning alcohol, criminalizing pornography, fighting against gay marriage, and prohibiting sexual education in the school system, all neo-conservative fundamental religious ideologies, but there is one other thing they also oppose. — The Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Film Festival was founded by Robert Redford to support independent filmmakers, it takes its name from the Sundance Kid, the real-life Utah outlaw he portrayed in the 1969 Western film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Founded in 1985, it offers workshops to aspiring film makers, and hosts the largest independent film festival annually in Park City, Utah.
The Sutherland Institute has fought this annual festival. On their website, they write “Utah has greater funding priorities – in fact, just about anything is a bigger priority than funding a financially independent film festival.” And has attacked politicians who have supported the annual film festival which draws in thousands of visitors every year to Utah.
In 2013, the Sutherland Institute was able to convince NPR to run a story against the film festival on its national radio station, and since then NPR has run stories about “the controversy” about the national park and monument system in Utah, using quotes and interviews from staff located in the downtown offices of the Sutherland Institute, which they label as a “think-tank.” (NPR story 1, NPR story 2, NPR story 3)
So why is the Sutherland Institute attacking the Utah’s largest film festival and its national parks and monuments?
Simply put, the Sutherland Institute opposes people visiting Utah, and in particular dislikes the tourist industry. It fears non-residents visiting or moving to Utah. Simply put they are xenophobic, and see their cause as a culture war against out-side ideologies infiltrating into Utah politics. The Sutherland Institute also has ties to the Russian Konstantin Malofeev, who they worked with in organizing anti-gay conventions in Salt Lake and working with hate-groups in Europe.
It is highly illegal for the Sutherland Institute (from its high perch in downtown Salt Lake City) to re-designate the boundaries of America’s federal national monuments. Such an act would require an action by the majority of voting members of congress to pass a law for such a designation. The executive branch does not have this authority, despite Trumps visit to the state this December, and his administration’s announcement of rescinding protection to these areas.
It’s important for journalist when they report on Utah’s National Parks and Monuments that they don’t take quotes and interviews with these groups, because the vast majority of Utah residents support the designation of the new Bears Ears National Monument.
When journalist use the Sutherland Institute as a source for a new story, they are not investigating the story, but giving voice to a lobbying group, which creates a false sense of wide-spread opposition to the United States park system. The Sutherland Institute succeeds when people are afraid to visit Utah.
I highly encourage people from around the world to visit these spectacular regions of the American West. Iconic regions of American ruggedness, the geology of Utah is unique on our planet, and it is a national treasure that should not be locked away by a few city-dwelling individuals who dislike visiting tourists.
As I finished writing this I learned of the Department of Interior orders to re-define the boundaries of Utah’s National Parks and Monuments (without congressional support). This re-definition will result of hundreds of lawsuits that will be filed in the coming days, since this is in violation of the United States Constitution.
…I fear for our country. Please consider a donation to the Diné Bikéyah it is the best way to fight this!