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Writer Jonathan Thompson discusses his new book about Southeast Utah's public lands and the future of Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument
Bruce Rinehart
Wikimedia Commons
Bears Ears National Monument

Sagebrush Empire is a new book from western writer Jonathan Thompson. It details the fight over public lands in Southeastern Utah. KZMU’s Justin Higginbottom speaks with the author about the roots of this conflict over land, and what to expect after a restoration of Bears Ears National Monument.

Thompson has a long history of traveling the high deserts of San Juan County. He grew up nearby in Durango, Colorado, and began hitting the trails pretty much from birth.

Thompson: And after I was born, my parents started taking me camping over there, in Comb Wash and Arch Canyon and those sorts of places. Pretty much before I could remember, before I could walk probably. Like that was my go-to place, you know, for the desert. Pretty much still is...

Later as a journalist, he covered the region... it’s history of racism, land disputes and culture clashes between the Native community and their white neighbors. In his new book, Sagebrush Empire, he details the long simmering conflict over land. And he begins with an illustrative case --- known as ‘Gate Gate.’

Thompson: So ‘Gate Gate’ was this kind of incident that happened in 2017. It was a heated time in San Juan County....

Just a few months earlier, Barack Obama had created Bears Ears National Monument after a pretty bitter debate. Soon after Donald Trump was sworn in, it was thought that monument would be reduced.

Thompson: .... Basically some folks from some retirees from Durango they went camping over at Valley of the Gods, which at the time was in Bears Ears National Monument. And one of them, Rose Chilcoat, was a pretty active environmentalist with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. The Great Old Broads have been very active in San Juan County trying to kind of curb public lands grazing, trying to deal with ATVs in the back country, that sort of thing. And people a lot of people didn't like Rose Chilcoat in San Juan County. So they went over there. Her husband, Mark Franklin, closed a gate on our corral for reasons that are totally clear, basically he just did it. But he closed a great gate on a corral. They didn't think anything of it. They left in a few days later, they're driving back past that corral and these cowboys came and ran out and sort of stopped them from going further down the road and called the sheriff and they were accused of trying to kill the cattle by closing the gate and cutting off access to the cows’ water. Eventually they were charged with felonies - they could have gone to prison. And the legal saga actually continues to drag on. And kind of no matter how you look at it the severity of the charges were a form of political retribution against Rose Chilcoat and her activism.

It was just one skirmish in what’s been referred to as the Sagebrush Rebellion. It’s a fight for control over land that goes back over 100 years and has many iterations and battles. The intensity ebbs and flows. Thompson says cattle ranchers and those fighting for more local control were emboldened after Trump’s win. But it’s unclear where that energy will go under Biden.

Thompson: I mean it's really interesting, because when Biden got elected, and he comes in and says he's going to do all these things, like restore the national monuments and, and that type of thing. And so far, we haven't seen the kind of backlash that we saw from Obama. And the reasons for that, you know, I honestly don't know what it is. Certainly there’s opposition to it, there’s some backlash, but it’s not as bitter or as angry as it was before.

Although that’s so far. The restoration of Bears Ears National Monument could be a new flashpoint. And Thompson has seen a growth in activism on the other side of the fight, those looking to expand federal protection.... especially from the Native community.

Thompson: The Indigenous movement has blossomed in the last - really five, six years. It was there. I mean, it's been there since the American Indian Movement, really in the 70s. But it certainly was revived. You had Standing Rock, you had Bears Ears, you had all these kind of things going on where Indigenous activists were taking the lead. And the mainstream environmental groups were kind of following along.

You can pick up Sagebrush Empire at your local bookstore. Thompson also has a newsletter covering public lands called The Land Desk.

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