The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mormons are among the few who want less federally protected land. Their history explains why.

One of the towers in Valley of the Gods within the Bears Ears National Monument is illuminated as the sun sets June 12 near Bluff, Utah. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

News Monday that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended that President Trump modify 10 national monuments highlights what could be one of the most unpopular environment-related actions of the Trump administration. Zinke’s department solicited public comments this summer, and 98 percent of them spoke favorably about keeping or even expanding monuments’ borders.

With one exception: The Americans most vocally opposed to government control of Western lands were Utah lawmakers and their rural constituents. And of those, many are probably descendants of Mormon pioneers.

While the religious identities of opponents weren’t public, this rings true to me that Mormons could be the leaders of this effort. I know this from my own family’s faith history. My ancestors were among the first Americans to convert to Mormonism in the 1830s and were among those who led the religion after the death of its founder, Joseph Smith. My great-great-great-grandfather was Brigham Young’s brother. I grew up in Utah, and I’ve lived all over its desert hinterlands, residing in some of the very towns that sit adjacent to national parks and monuments. I’ve also been studying Utah’s land-grab movement since it gained considerable traction in the state several years ago.

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There is a lot more to this than coal mines and fracking wells, and it has everything to do with Utah’s Mormon culture.

Distrust of the federal government. Since Mormon pioneers first traversed the West to settle Utah, they have harbored a deep-seated distrust for the federal government. Driven from Missouri by angry mobs, the Mormons appealed to the government for help and received none. At that time, they practiced polygamy. The Mormons were wildly unpopular, and their polygamist tendencies made them pariahs when it came to receiving aid or assistance from anyone. When they set out across the plains, their goal was actually to leave the United States, which is how they wound up in the Utah territory.

I recently spoke with Mormon historian Matthew Bowman, who elaborated on this rift: “The Mormons really believed through the 19th century that the United States government no longer represented them. Even though the Mormons did eventually accommodate themselves to the American government, there was still a kind of distinctive suspicion.”

Today, historically frosty attitudes toward the federal government have only reached a light simmer at best. Mormons still don’t take too kindly to the feds coming in and telling them what to do.

Distrust of the outside world. After arriving in Utah, the Mormon pioneers were isolationists. They organized their own militia, began developing their own resources and created planned communities built on a communal paradigm. Their goal was to become completely self-sufficient. Never again would they rely on the outside world that had been so unkind to them. They embraced the barrenness of the landscape they settled on, hoping it would prevent outsiders from moving in.

And even though modern city centers such as Salt Lake City and Ogden feature progressive communities that enjoy a robust connection with the outside world, much of rural Utah does not, and there is still an imaginary bubble over Utah. “There is a very definite cultural world, often inward-looking world, compared to other parts of the country,” said Susanna Morrill, a religious studies professor at Lewis and Clark College.

Tourism represents a dependence on U.S. capitalism, which would require rural Utahns to cater to the outside world. And if you haven’t noticed, there is a reason coffee shops, bars and liquor stores are hard to come by in Utah. Mormons don’t want that stuff around, since they regard such common delights as conduits of sin. But when there are tourists to please, it all starts moving in. This is not comforting for them.

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It’s our land, not yours. I know this sentiment is real among Utah Mormons, because I’ve seen it, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. My pioneer ancestors believed that Utah was their promised land, given to them by God to use, and that they were supposed to improve upon nature, letting none of it go to waste. As stewards of the land, they believed they couldn’t let it sit idle, and the drive to make it produce is as strong as ever. The idea that Utah’s public land should be controlled by the progeny of a small group of white settlers is alive and well among some modern-day Mormons, and they support acquiring federal land as an effort to “take back” what they believe is rightfully theirs.

For many Utahns, whose families have a long history of working the land, monument designations can represent a waste of available resources, forcing locals to comply with federal regulations and the wishes of an outside world they think is corrupt. However, the numbers don’t exactly support resource extraction as a sustainable option for Utah’s economy. In 2014, Utah exported $8.8 million worth of petroleum and coal, according to a 2016 report by the Utah Economic Council. That same year, tourists spent $7.98 billion in Utah, bringing in $1.07 billion in tax revenue for the state, according to a 2016 report by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardener Policy Institute. Tourism dollars will continue to flood the state in coming years, while fossil fuels, by their very nature, will eventually run dry.

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Yet Mormon lawmakers are among the most prominent advocates to reduce federally protected lands. Utah U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) is the very individual who asked Trump to investigate the designations of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments and to reduce their boundaries. Hatch, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee and U.S. Rep Rob Bishop — all Mormon Utah Republicans — are named as the top three offenders on the Center for Biological Diversity’s list of “public lands enemies.”

The Mormon religion holds enormous sway over the opinions of its members, who make up the majority of Utah’s residents. And although the church has spoken in favor of a sustainable approach to the environment, it has yet to advocate federal protection of public lands. Until Mormon leaders declare their support for such stewardship and call for the preservation of our nation’s greatest treasures, Utah politicians will continue to bend Trump’s ear toward privatization and resource development, reflecting their culture’s historical distrust and proprietary notions regarding the very lands that really belong to all of us, not just a few.

Christine Colbert writes from her home in Washington state. She is developing a book about Utah and public lands in the West.