Paradise Paved

The vast material displacements the machine has made in our physical environment are perhaps in the long run less important than its spiritual contributions to our culture. — Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

There are now a great many young adults who have no memory of a time before social media and other technologies killed broadcasting. In startlingly rapid fashion, media outlets that succeeded by reaching a broad cross-section of society have been supplanted by niche outlets that succeed through extreme specificity.

This fragmentation of media and culture has its benefits. Off-beat, independent artists and writers can much more readily find their audience, and their audience can find them. More importantly, perhaps, groups and individuals who were historically either depicted as caricatures or entirely invisible in the mass media now routinely and more faithfully see themselves represented on mainstream platforms.

Of course the new media landscape is not without serious drawbacks. The boundaries around ideological and cultural bubbles seem increasingly calcified. Complex issues are flattened and reduced to cartoonish extremes, all the better to appeal to the emotions of the target audience. When communication does cross tribal lines, it tends, as often as not, to take the form of bad-faith provocations. On a more granular level, mental health scholars and professionals document a creeping epidemic of depression and alienation associated with living very online.

But rest assured, this essay is not yet another think piece about society going to hell in new media’s handcart. Instead, the brief survey above is meant to help illustrate the way in which technological tools that are initially viewed as novel and disruptive come to be seen as cost-free or even inevitable. I observe our current condition in order to facilitate a bit of conceptual time travel. If we could transport ourselves a few generations into the future, we would likely find nearly complete acceptance of the fragmented new media landscape we now find so problematic. But what if we traveled about the same amount of time backwards into history? Is there a deeply disruptive technology that was widely adopted only a few generations ago that is now seen as entirely unremarkable? Are the impacts of this technology on civilization — both physical and spiritual — seen as being as inevitable as gravity? I offer for your consideration the automobile.

Photo: Standard-Examiner

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return. — André Gorz, The Social Ideology of the Motorcar

Given the preponderance of our actual driving experience, it’s a bit incredible that car marketing works at all. What is sold as both a status object and a tool of liberation is experienced almost entirely as a cage. One of the more obvious ways in which the experience of car travel falls well short of its promise takes the form of the traffic jams that occur every day in cities of every size and in every region of the country. Motorists in vehicles that can easily reach speeds of 100+ MPH creep along at paces comfortably achieved on a bicycle. So we build more roads and widen the ones we already have, which is a response that can never work.

Adding car lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity. — Lewis Mumford

This pithy aphorism is actually quite an accurate and concise expression of the concept of induced demand: highway expansion framed as a solution to traffic congestion is doomed to fail, because adding capacity simply invites more traffic. A classic example is the expansion of the Katy Freeway in Houston. Texas spent $2.8 billion to expand the freeway to a whopping 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. After the project was completed, commute times briefly dipped, only to rebound and then some.

Photo: Houston Chronicle

The concept of induced demand also maps quite neatly onto the phenomenon known as the Marchetti Constant, which is the name for the truism that human beings have always tolerated a roughly half-hour one-way commute. This explains a good deal about the form that cities take. For most of history, cities were compact as a direct function of the distance a pedestrian comfortably covers in a half-hour.

As transportation technology has improved, whether by replacing feet with cars or by adding road capacity, the consequence has not been that commute times have gotten shorter, but that the city has spread ever wider. Nationwide, about 31 million acres of farmland were lost to development in the 20 years between 1992 and 2012, according to the American Farmland Trust.

One way to place in context the magnitude of this shift is to isolate the transportation variable from population growth. An excellent example is Buffalo, New York where net metro-area population growth was zero between 1950-2010 while the urban footprint of the city more than tripled.

Suburban Phoenix

As it has worked out under the impact of the present religion and myth of the machine, mass Suburbia has done away with most of the freedoms and delights that the original disciples of Rousseau sought to find through their exodus from the city. Instead of centering attention on the child in the garden, we now have the image of ‘Families in Space.’ For the wider the scattering of the population, the greater the isolation of the individual household, and the more effort it takes to do privately, even with the aid of many machines and automatic devices, what used to be done in company often with conversation, song, and the enjoyment of the physical presence of others. — Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

This shift in the urban form has not only remade our built environment, but has radically reoriented our social and spiritual lives. In fact, some of the negative effects of the post-car development pattern are similar to the apparent ills of new media. We have used the car in concert with Euclidean zoning to sort ourselves into suburban “neighborhoods” that are limited to tightly defined demographic and socioeconomic profiles. These physical bubbles in turn tightly define both the quantity and the range of personal interaction we experience on a regular basis. If you think this type of sorting has had no effect on personal empathy or community solidarity, I encourage you to attend any public hearing in which your local government is considering a proposal to build multifamily homes next to a typical suburban housing development.

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cactus Ed might have added that the benefits that accrue to the non-motorized traveler are not only spiritual but material. In Walden, Thoreau considered the economics of “taking the cars to Fitchburg.” By his math, train fare to Fitchburg was about equal to a day’s wage, which was about how long he figured it would take him to walk there. So, he reckoned, not only would the trip be a fuller and more pleasant experience on foot, it would also be quicker. The modern math isn’t much better: AAA reports that the average annual cost of a medium-sized SUV is over $10,000. How many days do we work each year simply to support our mechanical dependents?

Imagine what would happen if all the countries on earth ever achieve the same vehicle-ownership rate as the U.S. in 2000: there would be 4.7 billion vehicles even if the human population does not increase. … If there are four parking spaces per car (one at home, and three more at other destinations), 4.7 billion cars would require 19 billion parking spaces, which amounts to a parking lot about the size of France or Spain. More cars would also require more land for roads, gas stations, used car dealers, automobile graveyards, and tire dumps. — Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking

Disneyland Paris

All transportation systems consist of three elements: vehicles, rights-of-way, and terminals. Trains, tracks, and train stations, for example. The freedom promised by car travel is predicated on dedicating an incredible amount of real estate to all three elements.

Photo: 9gag.com

In particular, the amount of land dedicated to parking spaces — the terminal in the automotive transportation system — is staggering. Each parking space is around 160 square feet and multiple spaces are provided for each car, usually as a condition of development imposed by municipal government. Estimates of the total number of parking spaces in America are as high as 2 billion for roughly 250 million cars. Another bit of trivia that highlights the car’s privileged place: America now builds more 3-car garages than 1-bedroom apartments.

One justification for our national supply of parking is the holiday shopping season. Just as many retailers count on the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas to reach profitability for the year, defenders of Big Parking point to the holiday shopping season as justification for the massive parking lots that sit nearly empty nearly all year. But the reality is that even on Black Friday, most parking lots aren’t full.

Photo: Strong Towns

A few years ago, the urbanist organization Strong Towns started a clever crowdsourced campaign to illustrate this. Every year, they invite people to post pictures on social media of their local parking lots with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. The results are as entertaining as they are horrifying. This holiday season, consider making your own observations on the state of parking where you are. As you go about your holiday business, note how full the parking lots are. If where you are is typical, it will only be the spots around the more popular shopping destinations that approach capacity. Even then, what we perceive as a completely full parking lot often only seems so because we have become accustomed to abundant empty asphalt.

Photo: Canyon Country Zephyr

The problem of cars, and in particular the problem of parking them, is not limited to large cities. In particular, small cities and towns based on an amenities economy are severely afflicted with the problem. This makes intuitive sense, since one of the main features of such towns is the constant churn of one wave of motorized visitors following another into and then back out of town. It is yet one more way in which such places resemble a large amusement park.

A thorough study published last year surveyed in detail the parking situation in five cities of different sizes and from different regions of the country. One of the things that made the study particularly interesting to me is that it included the New West darling of Jackson, Wyoming, which allows for ready comparison with ordinary locales.

What the researchers found is that Jackson has a parking density of almost 54 parking spaces per acre, which is over five times greater than New York City’s parking density and nearly twice the parking density of even a normal, car-friendly city like Des Moines. Even more startling, Jackson’s parking density equates to a mind boggling 27 parking spaces per household with a total replacement value of $711 million. This means that Jackson has nearly $200,000-worth of parking for every one of its households.

Moab is, as you might expect, another interesting case. A recent study of Moab’s downtown parking supply found that even during peak visitation, there is ample parking. In fact, the report found that at the peak of the period studied, only 53% of the spaces were occupied.

So why does it feel like there are always too many cars and never enough parking in Moab? It’s probably a combination of a few factors. One, there are indeed many times more people in Moab on a typically busy weekend than there are permanent residents, and virtually all of those visitors arrive by automobile. There is a real and challenging gap between the car infrastructure needed by an ordinary city the size of Moab and one that is a popular tourist destination. It poses a challenge somewhat analogous to sizing parking lots for both the holiday shopping season and also for the other 11 months of the year.

A second likely reason is similar to what I noted above about our perception of parking space utilization: we have become so conditioned to expect extremely vacant parking lots that even occupancy levels well below capacity feel crowded. A third, related reason is that we perceive a parking shortage if we can’t park directly adjacent to our destination. A walk of even a block seems to us an unbearable hardship. As the authors of the Moab report write: “People seem unwilling to walk greater than 300 feet from their vehicle to their destination as witnessed by the available parking in the highest demand hours.” A knock-on effect of this compulsion is that a significant part of traffic congestion consists of cars circling the block as their drivers search desperately for a spot right next to their destination. We’ve come a long way since Walden.

In a further irony, it appears that the study has not curbed the desire to add still more “free” public parking to Moab’s downtown core, including a $7.8 million parking structure. For a bit of perspective, the 60-unit Cinema Court housing project developed in 2012 cost $8.79 million. So, for about the same expenditure as it would take to provide affordable housing for around 50 rent-paying, working families, which Moab desperately needs, the city is instead adding large chunks of toll-free parking, which it doesn’t need at all. As Gandhi succinctly said, “Action expresses priorities.”

Cataclysmic Money and the Illusion of Prosperity

Zephyr readers consistently demonstrate a high degree of insight and engagement. Last issue, for example, Doug Meyer left a response to my column that steered me to a selection of smart essays and other writing about the meaning of big words like nature and wilderness. Reading from his list has in turn led me down further related paths. I expect I’ll be writing more about that cluster of topics in the near future.

For this issue, however, I want to address a different smart comment that was left by another reader in response to something else I wrote for the Zephyr about a year ago:

“Interesting and well-researched article, and I essentially agree with it. But, the table of county economic data is misleading in that the “Typical household income” and “Typical home price” for San Juan County are (as stated in the footnotes) only “typical” for Monticello and (and likely as you state in the text) Blanding—not for most of the county. Income and home prices in White Mesa, Montezuma Creek, Aneth, Monument Valley, and other parts of the Rez are way below those values. This Anglo-centric economic analysis would mislead anyone who has not lived in the county or has integrated with only the Anglo community (likely the bulk of your readership). The Dine and Ute in the county are a major difference between San Juan and the predominantly Anglo Grand, Garfield, and Wayne Counties; and they will play a larger and dominant role in the political and economic future of San Juan County (a good thing) and likely overwhelm the Anglo establishment in ways the other counties will never experience—maybe in better (or less destructive) ways than those of “normal” Anglo Industrial Tourism. I don’t see the Indians having the elitism or greed of either the in-migrants (as you say) or the current and historic Anglo occupiers.”Bob Phillips, December 30, 2018

There are (at least) two distinct parts to this comment: 1) a questioning of my choice to use median home values in Moab and Monticello to stand for “typical home prices” in Grand and San Juan counties, and 2) an assertion that the impact of “Anglo Industrial Tourism” in San Juan may be tempered thanks to the influence of Native American residents on the local economy and government. As interesting and provocative as the second part of the comment is, I’m mostly going to limit my response here to the first.

Housing on the Navajo Reservation. Source: Getty via WBUR.org.

My intent in using median home values for Moab and Monticello to represent local housing costs was certainly not to sugarcoat economic conditions in San Juan County, nor in particular to deflect from the existence of deep poverty on the reservation. The goal was to compare, to the extent possible, apples to apples. Including reservation housing data would run counter to this goal given the entirely different system of property rights on the reservation (among other relevant differences). So to the extent that my essay and the table of economic data was “Anglo-centric,” it was entirely intentional. And I stand by that choice, not because living conditions on the reservation don’t matter, but because they do. In fact, it’s my opinion that they matter so much that to try to shoehorn them into a discussion of dissimilar circumstances can only lead to a crabbed, reductive consideration of the important questions. Such issues deserve their own discussion on their own unique terms.

With this said, I think it may be worth returning to some of the issues initially raised in the original essay of mine and highlighted by the first part of Bob’s comment.

The New West As Prosperity Gospel

It has been my experience during the years of the Bears Ears controversy that one very common rhetorical strategy of monument proponents is to include economic indicators unique to the reservation to make the case that San Juan County as a whole is desperately poor and in dire need of the sort of fixing Industrial Tourism is good at. The reasons for doing this are simple enough. To start with, it is the steadfast belief of elitists everywhere that they come not to condemn a place and its people but to save them. And many Bears Ears maximalists certainly live up to this axiom. Indeed, the standard sales pitch — for the New West in general and Bears Ears in particular — amounts to a sort of secular prosperity gospel in which economic prosperity inevitably follows from the proper, enlightened appreciation of nature. One form or another of this argument is made time and time and time again.

Another reason for this strategy, I think, is that it feels intuitively right. Moab just looks more wealthy than Monticello.

At the core of my essay was the counterargument that there is in fact a considerable gap between what the New West promises in terms of socioeconomic salvation and what it actually delivers. Boasts about the size of the outdoor recreation industry and rustic-twee architecture tell one story, but the stories from an expanding precariat class across the New West tell another.

Moab-Area Vacation Home. Source: VRBO.
Monticello-Area Vacation Home. Source: VRBO.

In more narrow terms, a comparison of the real cost of living between Moab and Monticello reveals that Moab’s prosperity is largely illusory. Recall that Moab’s median home price is nearly 50% higher than in Monticello while Moab’s median household income is much lower. When chronic housing insecurity is the norm for a considerable majority of your town, that is not affluence. It just isn’t. If Moab appears wealthy, maybe it’s because we don’t distinguish anymore (if we ever did) between the consumption of wealth and its accumulation. And if Monticello appears poor through our windshield, maybe it’s also because we have increasingly few opportunities to see what the middle class actually looks like, especially in America’s rural places.

Moab’s Affordability Gap. Source: 2017 Moab Area Affordable Housing Plan.

We can say more about how places like Moab come to give the illusion of wealth while creating precious little shared prosperity. In Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, Alain Bertaud observes that the typical city, at bottom, functions as a labor market: 

Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job. (Source: CityLab.)

It seems to me that this insight is fundamentally correct. It also lays bare a significant distinction between unusual cities like Moab that are defined by their dependence on an amenities economy and the boring kind of place that Bertaud is describing and which has been the prevailing model nearly everywhere for nearly all of human history. Namely, the organizing logic of an amenities economy isn’t production but consumption. Sure, an amenities economy requires considerable hard work by locals either permanent or itinerant  — visitors always need someone on the ground to provide food, shelter, and carefully curated performative and experential goods — but that work is incidental not foundational to the existence of the city. In essence, a town dependent on an amenities economy really is more like Disneyland or Club Med than not.

Moab Main Street. Source: Discover Moab.

This Land is Not for You and Me

And again, the clearest, most pesky evidence for the fundamental dysfunction of an amenities-based economy is the significant, observable bust between the (high) cost of housing in places like Moab and the (low) wages in the same places. In ordinary cities with an ordinary economy, the ability to charge for the development of residential real estate is tethered to the local labor market. (In older industrial times, the geographic realities of the local labor market also constrained the physical footprint of residential development, since living far from work would have meant an impossible commute.) Not so in the New West, where the automobile enables easy access to previously hard-to-reach corners of the landscape and where affluent buyers whose income is earned in labor markets hundreds or thousands of miles away bid up the price of real estate to levels well beyond what is affordable at local prevailing wages. The effect is that the supply of shelter in places like Moab is dominated by structures built for people who do not depend on local wages to rent or buy them. New West real estate is simply not for locals. They are interlopers in their own hometown.

Worker Housing in Moab. Source: Deseret News.

(As an aside, I hope it has become even more obvious by this point that including reservation property in this sort of discussion would do more to confuse the issue than to clarify it. The uniquely byzantine legal obstacle course that defines property rights on reservations means there can be no remotely similar process of amenity-driven migration or land speculation there. Indeed, the lack of a functional land use framework has been one of numerous impediments contributing to the utter failure to provide even basic housing for tribal members across the Navajo reservation.)

In her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs introduced the concept of “gradual money” versus “cataclysmic money.” The essence of the distinction is that there is an important, categorical difference between a place growing incrementally over time as returns on local economic gains are reinvested, in the former instance, and a place being subjected to wrenching social and economic change due to an overwhelming rush of money from sources outside the place itself, in the latter.

Source: Medium.

While Jacobs was talking about the effect of these different forms of investment on the fate of urban neighborhoods, it should be immediately apparent that this is also a useful framework for making sense of change across the New West. It should be equally apparent that only cataclysmic money can remake a place as rapidly and thoroughly as has happened in Moab.

Another set of concepts from the study of urban gentrification can help us deepen our understanding of cataclysmic money and the forces that typically unleash its torrent.

Neither Supply nor Demand Cares About Your Good Intentions

Generally speaking, there are both demand- and supply-side theories about the causes of gentrification. Demand-side theories focus on the way a shift in consumer preferences can turn a previously undesirable place into a trendy destination suitable for attracting the patronage of the bourgeoisie. This shift in the demand curve leads to a rapid increase in the price of real estate and transforms both the social fabric and built form of the place. In extreme cases, the result may be the dispossession and displacement of prior occupants. This explanation is essentially a description of the manufacture of demand for a luxury good.

A different way of thinking about gentrification is offered by rent-gap theory, which is a leading supply-side theory of the process. In this framework, the focus is shifted from the movement of people to the movement of capital. Note that demand-side and supply-side theories are not always in conflict, but they do offer different ways of thinking about the problem. For the graphically inclined, this what rent-gap theory looks like on the blackboard:

Source: StrongTowns.

The basic rent-gap explanation for the gentrification of a place like Moab goes something like the following. During the uranium boom of the 50s, Moab’s workforce multiplied several times over. The vast majority of the housing stock and commercial structures that count as “Moab” were built during this relatively short period. These buildings then depreciated over time, first gradually through ordinary wear and tear, then rapidly as the Cold War ended and the town experienced a prolonged period of disinvestment and depopulation. This was the state of Moab real estate when it was discovered by yuppies in the late 80s and transitioned in earnest to an amenities economy. A “rent gap” was created almost overnight. That is, there quickly emerged a significant gap between the existing (low) rent property could command, which was based on what existing Moab residents were able and willing to pay for shelter given the realities of the local labor market, and the potential rent the same property could command, which was based on what second home buyers and land speculators were able and willing to pay, which obviously had nothing at all to do with the Moab labor market. Capital, we know, is adept at sniffing out such “arbitrage opportunities.” And of course, the bigger the rent gap and the more quickly it forms, the more likely it is that the investment that follows is of the cataclysmic sort. And so it was with Moab.

When these factors come together in a way that creates an especially perfect storm, the complete impotence of good intentions to meaningfully affect outcomes should be apparent. This impotence includes, by the way, the good intentions that are typically expressed through local planning and zoning, in affordable housing initiatives, and anti- or smart-growth political campaigns. They are simply no match for the bloodless inevitability of supply and demand. And so it also was with Moab.

It is this set of concerns, in part, that leads some (like me) to wonder about the wisdom of more fully restructuring San Juan County around an amenities economy, as Bears Ears proponents prescribe. As it stands today, the relevant factors in SJC probably do not add up yet to a cataclysmic storm of New West money, but it’s likely to be a pretty good squall all the same.

The New West and the Problem of Affluence

In The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith suggests that the field of Economics has not sufficiently evolved to account for widespread material abundance, which is itself a recent condition anywhere in the world. Galbraith argues that the affluent society is different in kind, not just degree, from the generalized deprivation that prevailed for most of human history. He further argues that one of the more significant and troubling features distinguishing the affluent society is the pervasive manufacture of consumer demand.

John Kenneth Galbraith. Photo: jfklibrary.org

Galbraith introduces the point in the first chapter of The Affluent Society: “One would not expect that the preoccupations of a poverty-ridden world would be relevant in one where the ordinary individual has access to amenities — foods, entertainment, personal transportation, and plumbing — in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago. So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer even evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesized, elaborated, and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions. Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an ad-man to tell them what they wanted.”

A longer passage lays out a key insight into the work of the modern “ad-man”:

“If the individual’s wants are to be urgent they must be original with himself. They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him. And above all they must not be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied. For this means that the whole case for the urgency of production, based on the urgency of wants, falls to the ground. One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.

Were it so that a man on arising each morning was assailed by demons which instilled in him a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash, there would be every reason to applaud the effort to find the goods, however odd, that quenched this flame. But should it be that his passion was the result of his first having cultivated the demons, and should it also be that his effort to allay it stirred the demons to ever greater and greater effort, there would be question as to how rational was his solution. Unless restrained by conventional attitudes, he might wonder if the solution lay with more goods or fewer demons.

So it is that if production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy, or if the wants emerge pari passu [concurrent] with the production, then the urgency of the wants can no longer be used to defend the urgency of the production. Production only fills a void that it has itself created.”

Marketing’s capacity to spark and fan the flame it promises to quench has only grown in sophistication since The Affluent Society was published 61 years ago, and part of this evolution has been the selective merger of political and commercial agendas, including, notably, by many self-proclaimed subversives and revolutionaries. A few astute social critics have noticed. In 1997, with an apparent nod to the concept of “manufactured consent” made famous by Noam Chomsky, The Baffler published Commodify Your Dissent, which is a collection of essays cataloguing many of the ways in which the counterculture creates late capitalism and vice versa.

Photo: Apple

One prominent example is the trope of the “rebel” consumer, in which choosing a given brand is conflated with revolutionary political action or is carefully deployed toward the formation of an “alternative” or transgressive social identity. In this move, shopping becomes an integral part of the process of self- and meaning-making.

Naturally, the rebel consumer is mirrored by the rebel corporation which eagerly co-opts countercultural totems to sell, say, Chryslers. This has led eventually to a marketing race away from superficial gestures and toward signals of authentic corporate virtue; we now see many companies which don’t merely traffic in woke social or political symbols, but explicitly take on a capacious social and political identity. It’s as if, in Romneyian parlance, corporations really are people, my friend.

To complete the picture, a new figure has emerged at the helm of many of these organizations: the corporate leader who merges master-of-the-universe, robber baron-scale corporate ambitions with political-aesthetic sensibilities that would be at home in the Beatnik 50s or Free Love 60s. These characters score off the charts according to Bobo math: to calculate a person’s status, take their net worth and multiply it by their antimaterialistic attitudes. A fitting name for this odd new lifestyle-leftish corporate orthodoxy might be Countercultural Neoliberalism.

Photo: Nike

Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that the culture wars are absolutely fantastic for business, especially as political polarization has amped up in the last decade or so. Everything from the running shorts we wear to the chicken sandwich we eat has been successfully enlisted in the cause. What cause, you may ask? The cause, of course!

It doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes the wires show and it comes off as clunky or worse, as in the Kendall Jenner-Pepsi debacle. But often it works seamlessly, and the well-heeled, well-coiffed fakerjack is invented (for example).

Photo: Patagonia

We also, of course, get the New West, where there’s always a bumper to sticker with a cause célèbre, where there’s always a new Best Town to colonize, and where hell is other people’s fossil fuels.

The New West is also where virtually every successful company that comprises what we might call the Recreation Industrial Complex (RIC) now primarily sells sanctimony and only secondarily sells the good or service that keeps its owners and executives well-fed. In a way, it’s an ingenious modern twist on Robinson Crusoe: we should speak only of our arduous journey toward self-actualization but, yeah, by the way, we also happen to be fabulously wealthy thanks to the Brazilian plantation we own.

In canyon country, specifically, we can observe how the RIC manufactured both the demand for “Bears Ears” and the satisfaction of that demand. In statistical terms, approximately no one seemed to need to visit “Bears Ears” before December 2016, but now every outdoor athlete with a shoe contract and a Personal Brand to burnish — an “influencer” in the postmodern vernacular — seems determined to make an Insta-pilgrimage to “Bears Ears” or to at least engage in a bit of slacktivism from afar. The hoi polloi cannot be far behind.

It certainly cannot be said with a straight face that the urgency to both produce and consume “Bears Ears” originated with any of the thousands of people who had never heard of it before it showed up in their social media feed thanks to their status as “follower” of their preferred gear manufacturer (and who immediately felt sufficiently well-informed to voice their very strong opinion on the matter).

And finally, also in canyon country, we can look at Moab or Springdale or Torrey and see the logical endpoint of the counterculture-neoliberals’ unflinching manufacture of demand for evermore New West.

Photo: National Park Service

In Moab, for instance, a prospective reservation system to cope with the overtourism of Arches is apparently being met with measured suspicion from some locals thanks to its potential for sucking $22 million from the Moab economy. Shuttle systems like the one that operates in Zion are another popular half measure for managing absurd levels of tourism. And still another commonly invoked solution is to move more off-brand public lands into tourism’s prime time lineup (usually through the sweeping and politically toxic use of the Antiquities Act).

But beneath a thin veneer of environmental sensitivity, these still are neoliberal growth schemes in practical effect. After all, such measures only get broad support in the New West if they smooth out the lumpiness of visitation across time and/or space, and pave the way for more net growth in the long term. Support immediately evaporates if the wrong ox is at risk of being gored. “Believe in something even if means sacrificing everything” indeed.

In truth, it has never been more clear that New West orthodoxy revolves around certain sanctioned forms of conspicuous leisure married with an ostentatious yet cost-free performance of wokeness. Low forms of recreation have no place here. The same goes for work, especially stereotypically blue collar work, which is only properly done by suckers, the voluntarily poor, and the occasional moneyed neo-Thoreau anyway.

It’s all great for getting clicks, and even better for moving units, pleasing the donor class, and getting out the vote. It is also nearly enough to make a cynic wonder along with Galbraith whether the solution to what pains the affluent lies not in more goods, but fewer demons.

Tax Increment Financing and the Not-So-Invisible Hand

As I have written about before, at stake in the Bears Ears controversy is the nature and pace of rural restructuring in San Juan County. As the residents of the county continue to grapple with their predicament, it becomes clear that an under-appreciated cost imposed by the sweeping use the Antiquities Act is in the way it profoundly complicates the functioning of local government.

Presently in San Juan County, a variety of economic development tools are being considered or actively deployed. One such tool is a development subsidy generically known as tax increment financing (TIF), which was briefly discussed as part of a longer article in the September/October Zephyr. This policy tool has become a source of considerable confusion and consternation among some locals, not least for the school board that has a central role in its adoption.

TIF is used liberally in many places and San Juan County is of course also entitled to adopt it as a policy tool. But as decision-makers think their way through the implications, it is worth carefully considering whether the realities of TIF live up to the promise of its theory. Better yet would be for TIF policy, and the county’s economic development policy generally, to be consistent with an overarching vision for the county’s future.

How TIF Works

The details of implementing a TIF incentive can be a bit complicated, but the basic framework is fairly simple: local government authorities designate an area as a TIF district and freeze the tax base at a given year’s level. New, qualifying development to occur within the designated district should result in a taxable property value higher than this baseline. The incremental increase in taxable value then becomes a revenue stream that can be tapped to defray up-front project costs.

Typical TIF Financial Model. Graphic: Grand River Corridor.

A central aspect of the logic underlying TIF policy is that new development within the designated district will not occur “but for” the use of tax increment financing. Therefore, the increase in taxable property value resulting from new development also will not be realized “but for” use of the incentive. The incremental increase in taxable value post-development is framed by this logic as “found money,” which makes the incentive theoretically cost-free to the public.

Objects May Be Smaller Than They Appear

Before considering the prospective use of TIF in San Juan County in more detail, a bit of general background on the development process and municipal finance may also be helpful.

When a typical new residential subdivision is built, most constructed improvements — utilities, pavement, curb-and-gutter, sidewalk, etc. — are completed at the expense of the developer and then dedicated to the appropriate public entity (usually the city in which the development is located). In turn, these costs are bundled into the price of a finished building lot or home and ultimately into the mortgage or rent of the people who occupy the property. Commercial development follows the same basic template.

This is the essence of greenfield development and, on its face, it seems like a great deal: a cost-free bump to total public assets plus an expanded tax base plus usually the payment of impact fees or other exactions.

The catch is that this process also creates a long term financial liability for the maintenance and eventual replacement of the public works constructed during development. The (unasked) municipal finance question becomes whether the public’s revenue stream from the new land use is at least equal to the new liability. And the typical answer to that question is that it isn’t and it isn’t even close. In fact, it turns out that appearances are often deceiving. The projects that contribute the most to your community’s fiscal well-being very likely are not the ones you think, and the poorer parts of your town probably subsidize the wealthier. Not explicitly or intentionally, but through the public finance consequences that are embedded in local tax codes and the modern development pattern. Here is an illustrative example:

The Wealthy & Enlightened New West Settler

  • Project: Kayenta (Ivins, UT)
  • Type: Single family residential
  • Assessed value: $846,800 (typical home)
  • 2018 property tax: $5,015
  • Area occupied: 2.32 acres
  • Tax per acre: $2,161
  • Tax $ per linear foot of public works/street frontage: $19

The Underclass

  • Project: Bella Vista/Riverside Apartments (St. George, UT)
  • Type: Multifamily residential
  • Assessed value: $8,369,400
  • 2018 property tax: $46,243
  • Area occupied: 6.54 acres
  • Tax per acre: $7,071
  • Tax $ per linear foot of public works/street frontage: $81

The Kayenta planned community in Ivins is a great example of the kind of neighborhood that appeals to wealthy New West amenity migrants, and indeed there are aspects of the project’s development practices that are commendable. The project has a minimal disturbance philosophy which limits the amount of native topography and vegetation altered or destroyed during construction, plus strict architectural controls that dictate everything from building materials to colors to (night sky) lighting. Lots are generally an acre-plus in size and homes in the project start at around $500,000, with a median price closer to $1 million.

The Bella Vista Apartments in St. George are your typical garden apartment complex, consisting of 148 1- and 2-bedroom residences on about 6 ½ acres. The architecture is quite generic and rent is modest at around $600-$900 per month.

For most people, it is intuitively obvious that Kayenta is the kind of project your town wants in abundance, since it is more aesthetically appealing and seems to indicate that your town is becoming more prosperous. In many people’s minds, a project like Bella Vista is more or less its opposite. In fact, the normal state of affairs is for the residents of communities like Kayenta to oppose (to the point of prevention) the development of communities like Bella Vista, especially anywhere near where they live.

But let’s consider the relative merits from a different perspective. Kayenta is located at the far western edge of the St. George metro — about 15 minutes from downtown St. George — miles from almost any commercial or civic services. This means that nearly every ordinary activity of daily life requires a car trip, and a significant one at that. By contrast, Bella Vista is located on an arterial road with ready access to a bus line, and is within walking or cycling distance of employment centers and most services. This combination of factors makes life at Bella Vista far less car-dependent than life at Kayenta. It is also worth questioning which project is truly “limited disturbance,” since the 148 households who live in Bella Vista occupy less land than five Kayenta households.

More relevant to our analysis here is the significant difference in the impact of each project on municipal finances. Bella Vista is over 3 times more potent as a generator of tax revenue as Kayenta, and, on the expense side, the public works serving Bella Vista are a tiny fraction of Kayenta’s: less than 4 linear feet of public street frontage per household versus 263. When the roads and pipes in Kayenta need repair and, eventually, replacement, the work won’t be paid for primarily by the residents of Kayenta, but by the residents of communities like Bella Vista. With this background in mind, let’s return to San Juan County and TIF policy.

Early Stage TIF in San Juan County

As an economic development tool that seems to pay for itself, TIF has obvious appeal. Still, the empirical evidence surrounding TIF outcomes is no better than ambiguous, and at least a few of the common pitfalls are worth considering in the context of post-Bears Ears San Juan County.

To date, San Juan County has formed a Community Reinvestment Agency (CRA) and invited applications for tax increment financing. (Blanding has formed a separate CRA; however, since it is the county that assesses the lion’s share of local taxes, most TIF action is likely to occur within the county’s CRA framework.) So far, two projects have applied for tax increment financing from the county-wide CRA. Both projects are seeking a property tax abatement of up to 75% and 20 years.

One proposed project is a 54-unit boutique resort hotel called Bluff Dwellings, which is already well under construction at the mouth of Cow Canyon. That project is seeking tax increment financing of $458,000, which consists of a $300,000 turn lane into the property from Utah Highway 191 plus $158,000 in other utility improvements serving the project.

The second project proposing TIF is a 70-room limited-service flag hotel identified specifically as a Marriott Fairfield. That project location is targeted for a vacant parcel on the north end of Blanding and is currently in the pre-construction feasibility stage of development. The investors in that project are seeking $1,250,000 described as general site improvements like parking, utilities, and storm drain facilities.

Common Pitfalls of TIF

One common pitfall of TIF can be most easily understood by looking at its use in a different, more common context: given that the TIF subsidy is justified by its promise to stimulate investment where development otherwise would not occur, it should come as no surprise that the classic case for the use of TIF is under conditions of urban depopulation and disinvestment, commonly known as “blight.” Such usage is reinforced by the terminology employed by many jurisdictions when legislating their particular version of TIF, as in community reinvestment or redevelopment acts and agencies.

Whether TIF actually works to repair or reverse blight is controversial and fact-sensitive, but the relevant point here is that the challenge facing San Juan County post-Bears Ears is not likely one of stimulating tourism-related economic activity. In fact, the problem is probably about to become the opposite. This would seem to be particularly true of Bluff, which is already actively building toward a future as a New West enclave with its economic conditions dictated entirely by tourism and amenity migration.

In technical terms, offering tourism-based TIF incentives in San Juan County right now, especially in Bluff, is using a countercyclical development tool in a procyclical growth context. Put less formally, it is a bit like pouring gasoline on a fire.

A second common concern with TIF has to do with the way it influences competitive outcomes. This pitfall operates on two levels: TIF helps determine winners and losers between competitive private enterprises and also between public entities. This TIF pitfall is also more clearly seen by examining its use in an urbanized context where population and economic growth has stalled or reversed.

Assume, for example, that a developer is prepared to build a large Costco-anchored project. (A splashier example might be a professional sports team or Amazon’s headquarters expansion.) Since there is only sufficient demand for one such project across a large geographic area, individual cities are pitted against one another to attract the project. This is certainly advantageous for the developer in question, but “winning” is a more slippery concept for the cities involved and often comes down to which city is willing to offer the largest public subsidy, often including the liberal use of TIF.

But has the TIF “worked” in this scenario?

In a zero- or low-growth environment (or in a greenfield development context) the Costco-anchored project will surely establish a vastly higher property tax value than what it replaces, but ending the analysis there sidesteps the important consideration of any opportunity cost. In reality, the new Costco will inevitably hasten the demise of the prior generation of commercial projects serving the region and almost certainly preclude the development of, say, a Sam’s Club in the area. In this way, the TIF subsidy puts a thumb on the scale between private competitors.

ZCMI Mall. Photo: Labelscar/Retail History Blog.

And what about the competition between cities? Maybe the winning town is lucky and the projects precluded or made obsolete by the new Costco are located in the next town over. Or maybe not. Maybe, as in the case of Salt Lake City, City Creek kills Gateway kills Crossroads kills Main Street. Either way, what is clear is that the use of TIF does not expand the regional economy, it just hastens the next wave of development and rearranges where economic activity occurs.

Scrutinizing the Bluff Dwellings and Fairfield Proposals

The main argument advanced in favor of TIF for the Bluff Dwellings project is that the $300,000 turn lane required by UDOT was a surprise cost not discovered until after other approvals were granted and construction started. It would be unusual for such a significant and fundamental requirement to slip through the cracks for that long into the development process, but not unheard of.

It is somewhat less plausible that the project would not occur with the turn lane “but for” the use of TIF or that TIF is imperative to project feasibility. After all, construction was already underway before the prospect of TIF grew legs and $300,000 is only 5% of the total project cost of $6 million. (The other $158,000 requested for utilities construction pushes the total TIF requested to about 7.5% of the total project cost, and these items do not appear to be “surprise” or extraordinary improvements that create any meaningful benefit beyond the project site itself.) Keep in mind that no sensible financial pro forma for a prospective development project would fail to include a cost contingency line item in the range of 5-10% of the total budget.

The strongest argument for the Blanding Fairfield is that (1) it is a type of lodging that is categorically different from the independently branded lodging in the county, and (2) it will incorporate “Senior Center” and “Convention Center” space into its plan. Taken together, this argument probably makes a stronger case than the Bluff Dwellings resort that the project will produce spillover benefits to the community-at-large rather than solely to the project owners.

It is almost certainly true that there is a segment of the visiting public that would stay in a nationally-branded hotel that simply is not currently staying in the county at all. In this way, a Fairfield would not merely take market share from existing motel properties, but would also increase the total size of the lodging market. This would have further spillover to local business owners —  like restaurateurs and tour operators — who provide complementary services to Fairfield guests. And if the “Senior Center” and “Convention Center” elements of the project were realized, it would somewhat mitigate the focus on tourism development to the detriment of other considerations.

Still, there are considerable risks and obvious drawbacks to this use of TIF. For starters, the amount of TIF requested represents a significant portion of the investment at almost 17% of the total projected budget of $7.5 million. In both absolute and percentage terms, it would be a much larger public subsidy than the Bluff Dwellings developer is requesting.

More conceptually challenging, perhaps, are the fairness issues lurking here. For example, while a Fairfield may in fact produce spillover economic effects that grow the wealth of the larger community, such effects would be heavily concentrated in Blanding, whereas the cost of the TIF would be spread across the entire county, including, significantly, to schools in the southern communities of the county that have a very limited ability to capture any of these spillover effects and no substantial ability at all to develop their local economies along similar competitive lines.

It would also be hard to swallow the differential tax treatment if you are an incumbent motel owner in San Juan County. Below is an example of the tax potency math introduced earlier, adapted for this specific context. To make explicit the key takeaway, the humble existing mom-and-pop motel would have a tax potency about 40% greater than the national flag property for the duration of the TIF, assuming the application of the proposed San Juan County tax abatement. The particulars in San Juan County would vary somewhat from the example, but the order of magnitude appears to be consistent with the projections in the TIF proposal packet.

  • Property: Fairfield by Marriott (St. George, UT)
  • Assessed value: $6,832,200
  • 2018 property tax: $68,636
  • Area occupied: 1.85 acres
  • Tax per acre: $37,101
  • Tax per acre “If TIF”: $9,275 (under proposed SJC TIF regime)
  • Property: Sands Motel, St. George, UT
  • Assessed value: $1,248,600
  • 2018 property tax: $12,534
  • Area occupied: 0.95 acres
  • Tax per acre: $13,204

A Word to the Exhausted Majority

The fact is that the rolling Bears Ears controversy has, among other things, enormously complicated the normal operation of local government in San Juan County. This is clear in Bluff’s absurd new town boundaries, in the “Make It Monumental” controversy, and, yes, in the school board’s struggle to find a sound basis from which to set tax-subsidy policy. Current conditions are unfair both to local government actors and also to the private parties impacted by policy-making dilemma and paralysis.

The macro political condition is similarly grim. These are extremely polarized political times nationally (and even globally). The art of conversation between people who disagree has been replaced by the twin pastimes of “dunking on Conservatives” and “owning the Libs.” It may be depressing that this type of reductive othering of our political opponents has become common, but it shouldn’t be surprising given the bias-affirming monologue that prevails in the rhetorical echo chambers and ideological bubbles into which we increasingly sort ourselves through the real estate we occupy and the media we consume.

That’s the bad news. A few months ago, a study was published that perhaps contained a ray of hope. Through survey and analysis, the study’s authors concluded that, even in 2018, sorting Americans neatly into binary partisan tribes is still a considerable oversimplification. Instead, they identified seven discrete political clusters: Progressive Activists (8%), Traditional Liberals (11%), Passive Liberals (15%), Politically Disengaged (26%), Moderates (15%), Traditional Conservatives (19%) and Devoted Conservatives (6%).

Furthermore, the authors found that four of these groups, comprising a 2/3 majority of the total, share enough important traits that they deserve to be grouped together and described as the Exhausted Majority. According to the study’s authors, the Exhausted Majority: is fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society; is often forgotten or overlooked in the public discourse; is flexible and pragmatic in their views; and believes Americans of goodwill can still find common ground despite disagreement.

I offer this insight because I bet it rings true to many readers and also because I think it contains the potential for at least imagining a more constructive way forward.

For example, a worthwhile process for San Juan County might be a comprehensive county-wide planning effort along the lines of Envision Utah or Vision Dixie. The process might somewhat resemble the San Juan Lands Council process, but would focus on elements entirely within local control.

A regional planning push would establish a shared vision and common language that would better enable coherent policy-making by government actors. As it is, the cart is ahead of the horse and public servants like the school board are in the impossible position of working out high-stakes, long term decisions on matters for which no strategic blueprint has been created and for which the body generally lacks the specialized technical background to confidently navigate independently.

Ideally, a comprehensive planning effort could have proceeded alongside the Lands Council process ahead of the Bears Ears uproar, but even today such a regional planning initiative might build or repair a measure of community solidarity. A healthy process would implicitly acknowledge a shared destiny and love for San Juan County while also providing space for the differences among its individual communities to play out at the municipal or chapter level. The process also would have the virtue of excluding the influence of groups external to the county.

Such planning is not merely a feel-good exercise in participative democracy. Some issues can only be addressed at the regional scale and many more issues are better addressed at that level.

None of what I’ve written here is meant to pick on any particular person, project or institution, or to imply that the New West can simply be tamed through proper planning, or that tax increment financing is categorically bad. In fact, I find such blanket conclusions to be painfully superficial. My attempt here is more to encourage dialogue than to prescribe solutions. There are no silver bullets, but having a conversation about your community that spans city limits and voting precincts, and tries to consider the consequences of today’s actions 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future is at least better than not having that kind of conversation at all.

Bears Ears Brinkmanship: With Friends Like These, Does Cedar Mesa Need Enemies?

PL>B

In large part, my personal opposition to a large new national monument in San Juan County was always based on a straightforward risk assessment of the likely consequences under “monument” versus “no monument” scenarios.

On the one hand, it seemed obvious that San Juan’s high-quality backcountry was unlikely to ever be degraded by extractive land uses irrespective of monument status. Demagoguery about pump jacks between the Bears Ears aside, the region west of US-191 has a very long track record of minimal-to-nonexistent development. Oil and gas production peaked decades ago, and very little even of that past activity occurred inside what became the 2016 Bears Ears boundary. The mining story is about the same.

Also, to be comprehensive about the impact of monument designation on resource extraction, any theoretical reduction in extractive activity within a new monument’s boundaries has to be weighed against the certainty of increased extractive activity elsewhere in Utah, as monument designations trigger the unlocking of Trust Lands in exchange for developable federal land.

There were also already numerous restrictive designations blanketing San Juan County’s backcountry, including three Wilderness Study Areas totaling over 200,000 acres just on Cedar Mesa. (For context, the effective Cedar Mesa Wilderness is about the same size as Zion and Arches National Parks combined.) Similarly restrictive designations or management imperatives applied to most of the other significant, distinct landforms that are now subsumed by the Bears Ears brand. Arguably, such low-key designations and imperatives are more purely tilted toward the mission of conservation than national park  or monument designations, which are geared more toward recreation and tourism.

It also never made sense to me to assume that “monument” would work as a magic word to safeguard cultural resources. Only enforcement of the many existing laws protecting such artifacts, or, far better still, a respectful and patient process of public education, is likely to change attitudes and behavior on that front.

On the other hand, monument designation would redefine the meaning of the landscape, which would permanently spike tourism and amenity migration to the region, which would in turn significantly and negatively impact the natural landscape and accelerate the socioeconomic restructuring of its gateway communities.

So, on balance and compared to many other parts of the Colorado Plateau, San Juan County was still doing awfully well simply by being difficult — difficult to reach, difficult to traverse, difficult to comprehend. Any intervention aimed at improving upon existing conditions would be a delicate process involving considerable risk of costly unintended consequences.

Day Zero

The calculus above assumed a generic political climate, one in which the prospective monument got typical (inadequate) funding and modest public attention outside the region. In this scenario, the new monument would be hailed as a landmark victory by Antiquities Act maximalists and received bitterly by those who oppose the sweeping use of that law. The designation would of course drive even deeper the partisan and ideological wedge that exists across Utah’s canyon country and beyond, but otherwise the fallout would be as it has been in the past.

Of course, Bears Ears was not created in a generic political environment, but in the aftermath of the acrimonious 2016 election. This detail about the timing of the monument designation turns out to be fairly important yet is consistently neglected in the common Bears Ears narrative. The story usually goes that the monument was designated and then came the provocative and unpredictable Trump, but that actually gets the order of events backwards. Donald Trump was already President-elect when the designation was made.

To me, on election night 2016, the decision to designate a large national monument in San Juan County went from being a questionable theoretical proposition to a clear act of environmental negligence. There was no plausible scenario at that point in which the new monument would be implemented with any enthusiasm. A more realistic expectation was for the catastrophe that has unfolded.

First, Do Harm

It turns out Obama’s staff at Interior made a similar assessment of the situation in late 2016, but, remarkably, rather than conclude that designating the monument had become a colossally bad idea, they determined that it was the most responsible thing they could do.

We know this for sure because of a presentation at John Hopkins University that involved several monument advocates. Much of the information presented is well-worn terrain, but there are also a number of novel and surprising claims made by all of the panelists.

One such nugget comes about an hour into the presentation, when Tommy Beaudreau, Chief-of-Staff of former Interior Secretary Jewell, explains that the decision to launch the monument directly into the current political thresher was done with full knowledge that what has happened would happen. He acknowledges that the administration knew in late 2016 that the monument proclamation would be received as an act of provocation if not a declaration of total war. They knew there was no chance that the monument as designated would be properly funded or any other constructive steps taken toward its implementation. They knew the ensuing controversy would be protracted and the outcome of the fight uncertain. They knew this chain reaction would negatively impact the landscape and its cultural resources. And still they set it in motion.

The obvious question is this: how could anyone make a risk assessment even superficially similar to the one outlined at the top yet reach a completely opposite conclusion about what constitutes a responsible course of action? The answer, it turns out, depends on whether you’re trying to protect a place or a particular interpretation of the Antiquities Act.

This becomes clear during the same segment of the Johns Hopkins presentation, when Beaudreau explains in clear and relatively detailed fashion that what made some sacrifice of Bear Ears tolerable is that it represents the best opportunity to “prepare the battlefield” for a court fight over the limits of the Antiquities Act.

With that, we have a closing statement on how the Obama administration’s approach to federal land management in southern Utah morphed from a version that defined “inclusivity” as requiring cooperation with Old West user groups and competing political ideals to one that defined “inclusivity” along standard left-identitarian lines, in which racial and political tribalism is not transcended, just (ostensibly) flipped.

After all, the thinking summarized by Beaudreau at Johns Hopkins represents a complete reversal by an administration, which, in earlier days, had acknowledged the toxicity of using the Antiquities Act in the manner exemplified by Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. In 2010, Ken Salazar, Secretary Jewell’s predecessor, had in fact promised that the President would not “establish any national monuments without local permission (which means there will not be any).”

Whether, as an academic question, the Antiquities Act could be used in such a sweeping fashion was beside the point. Doing so was an irresponsible use of executive power. Predictably, this pledge was the cause of considerable consternation among groups who have long calculated that they could bypass the hassle and compromise intrinsic to the legislative process to approximate a Red Rock Wilderness Act one 2-million-acre monument at a time.

The beginning of the shift in both narrative and policy can be traced to about 2014 and the merger of the Cedar Mesa monument proposal with the Greater Canyonlands monument proposal. The new and improved boundaries were then rebranded as Bears Ears and the monument issue racialized as some weird sort of half-baked reparations.

This history gives further context to Beaudreau’s comments, since the battlefield preparation undertaken by pro-monument advocates obviously extends well beyond literal courtrooms to include the court of public opinion. Playing up the preciousness of Bears Ears does nothing to change the calculus for the (implausible) industrial use of the land, and playing up the essentialist indigeneity of the monument proposal does nothing to safeguard the region’s cultural resources. But both tropes are incredibly useful for framing monument supporters as the kind of people who love nature and archaeology, and monument opponents as the kind of people who shoot guns at rock art and decorate their yards and homes with plundered pottery and exhumed infant mummies.

Two Can Prepare a Battlefield

For many obvious reasons, monument opponents have been pretty lousy at influencing public opinion. But they still have friends in government, including more allies in the judiciary than some may realize.

At the time of the Bears Ears designation, it was clear that the Trump administration would be naming at least one Justice to the Supreme Court (Gorsuch) and likely one or two more than that (Kavanaugh so far). It was also clear that the Trump administration would be busily filling judicial vacancies in the lower federal courts at the same time as a Bears Ears lawsuit would unfold procedurally. As I write this, that project now stands at 29 new judges named to federal appellate courts, 53 to district courts, and counting.

So, the Bears Ears plaintiffs must know that, while they may have been able to steer the case into a relatively friendly court initially, the lawsuit may well ultimately be decided not by a liberal-majority court nor even a conventionally conservative one, but one consisting in significant part of judges groomed and handpicked by a Federalist Society that has declared its mission to include the dismantling of the federal administrative state.

The movement to restructure the judiciary has been decades in the making and, now that the decisive moment has finally arrived, there is no chance the architects of this campaign will fail to knock down the pins they have so carefully lined up.  A fight over the Antiquities Act is likely to be a fairly minor battle in what is shaping up to be a major struggle to reorient American law, and it is impossible to guess for certain how this structural context will affect the outcome of any particular lawsuit. But it is likely to matter a lot more than all the symposia, opinion letters and amicus briefs devoted to the case.

So, when Beaudreau and other monument plaintiffs and their allies discuss the legal fight and express supreme confidence in the outcome, it sounds an awful lot like whistling past the graveyard or, alternatively, a conversation from inside an ideological bubble. The kind of hermetic monologue that has become all too common in modern America’s hyper-polarized political climate.

Meanwhile, the human impacts on the region increase bit by bit, just as we all knew they would, and the political discourse around federal land management is more bitter than ever, as was equally predictable. It’s all nearly enough to make you wonder if the Obama administration was originally correct to think that the legislative process is the only responsible way to make complex, permanent, large-scale federal land management decisions.