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The West In A Time Of Conflict: The Bundys, Public Lands And Covid-19
March 30, 2020
The West In A Time Of Conflict: The Bundys, Public Lands And Covid-19
Mountain Journal columnist Rebecca Watters interviews Betsy Gaines Quammen about her new book: 'American Zion'
Cliven Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona. Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore (www.flickr.com/people/22007612@NO5)
Book review and Interview by Rebecca Watters
In January of 2016, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of militant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. For the next 40 days, the occupation played out on national television as the armed militants and the FBI tried to out-wait each other.
The FBI, having learned hard lessons at Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 1990s, slowly closed around the refuge, denying the militants the gun battle that they craved in favor of a stranglehold on supply lines and communication channels. In the end, one militia member died, the Bundy brothers were arrested, and the occupation ended with a whimper as the remaining militia members dispersed or surrendered.
The Bundys have been at the center of two armed standoffs over public land in the last decade, with a history of conflict with the Bureau of Land Management that goes back even further. Betsy Gaines Quammen’s new book American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, & Public Lands in the West (Torrey House Press) explores why this particular family has been the catalyst for so much conflict.
Rather than simply falling back on tropes of aggrieved gun-toting right-wing ranchers, however, Quammen delves deeply into the theological foundations of the Bundys’ stance, tying their actions to the early history of Mormonism, particularly the Mormon land ethic and Mormon interpretations of the divinity of the Constitution. Painting a picture of a uniquely American religion that has shaped the American West in important ways, but at times has operated as if blind to the ecological and geological realities of the very land on which it was founded, the book asks what the future of public lands looks like in the context of violence that its perpetrators believe to have divine justification.
The book is divided into two parts; the taproot story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s struggle to establish a safe homeland for their people, and the sprawling, tangled tree of sects and prophecy and public land fights that grew up out of that foundation. Quammen is quick to point out that the current LDS church has disavowed the Bundys’ armed rebellions.
The families that are claiming divine right to the land are descendants of individuals who helped found the religion, and stories of defying government persecution in the name of the faith have been passed down within those families. Quammen deals with these nuances with empathy for all groups involved, including the Bundys.
But she doesn’t try to hide her own convictions, which are firmly environmentalist and pro-public lands. She also directly confronts the way in which Mormon beliefs co-opt the histories of Indigenous nations and erase Indigenous rights to stolen land. She doesn’t spare environmentalists on this count, either. White public lands advocates often (almost always, in fact) forget to acknowledge that our own celebration of these spaces is built upon the theft of land from sovereign nations by our government.
Keeping Indigenous communities firmly in view throughout the book brings an added and important perspective to the environmentalists-versus-ranchers tale that is often told. We cannot have our public lands if we don’t also work for justice.
Ultimately, as the story goes on, the toxic imbrication of prophecy, conspiracy theory, and guns gives rise to the 2014 Bundy standoff in Nevada and the 2016 occupation of Malheur, as non-Mormon right-wing militias begin to respond to the Bundys’ anti-government campaign and show up – with weapons – to join them. The marriage of faith-based defiance of the government with neo-Nazi militants is symptomatic of an enormous challenge to democracy itself, and this is one of Quammen’s clear concerns.
There are not many phrases that better encapsulate the national political scene over past several years than “fact-free melee.” Denying science is a favorite tactic of special interests from the oil industry to those opposed to protecting wildlife.
Urgent action on climate change has been thwarted for decades because people don’t “believe” in it. But we’re seeing the culmination of that melee now. Faith and gut-feeling have never been proof against the biological and mathematical realities of epidemic disease, which is a much faster-moving crisis than climate change. Quammen’s book uses Mormon history and the Bundy saga to highlight the critical dilemma of what happens when there is no cohesion and no agreement about what is real, and no consensus on governance.
The book gives an excellent and detailed history of the relationship of Mormonism with the landscape, but it also poses the question: what does such a state of conflict mean for the future of public lands and for democracy in this country?
For full disclosure, Betsy Gaines Quammen has been a friend of mine for a decade. We have worked together on conservation projects in Mongolia. She and I sat down for a phone conversation about her book, in which she discussed both the history of Mormon relationship with the landscape, and the current situation with militias, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and the living in the era of Covid19.
She and I had a wide-ranging conversation about the Bundys, the militia movement, the Sagebrush Rebellion, radical Mormon theology and the push by some to delegitimize public lands and federal authorty over them.
In lieu of her postponed book tour, you can join Betsy Gaines Quammen and her husband, David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, for conversations viaFacebook Live” on the following dates:
March 31: Anti-science and Pandemic
April 2: “We the People” in the time of Pandemic
April 4: Pandemic and Wild Thoughts
Rebecca Watters Interviews Betsy Gaines Quammen
Zion National Park in Utah. Photograph taken from the Grotto by Tom Morris (www.sharetheexperience.org)/ US Department of the Interior
Rebecca Watters: Why did you choose this particular topic?
Betsy Gaines Quammen: I spent eight years working with religious leaders on conservation issues, and when I started my PhD, I decided that I wanted to look at the flip side of what I had been working on. I worked with Buddhist monks on fisheries issues in Mongolia, and on snow leopard conservation in Bhutan, and we worked with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders on pollinator conservation in the US, and I was able to find encouraging tenets in their sacred texts that fit within a conservation narrative—conservation being a modern concept, and sacred texts being somewhat ancient.
I thought that it might be really interesting to look at a religion that was uniquely American, that was not ancient, and that had a conservation ethic that was very different than what I had been working on. So I decided to look at Mormonism in the US, because I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought that there were principles within Mormonism that were showing up in these modern public lands battles.
Watters: What principles in particular?
Gaines Quammen: I think that it started with Zion National Park. I was fascinated with the idea that the first National Park in Utah was named Zion, which is how the Mormons refer to their homeland. The formation of the park was a collaborative effort, and really well loved by the local Mormon people. Right after the establishment of the park, things started to become contentious, and relationships broke down between the federal government and the Mormon people as future conservation projects came into being in Utah.
So I was primarily interested in how a national park could be named after the Mormon homeland and how that national park could also be an antithesis of what Mormon culture believed land should be. In other words, Mormon culture has traditionally seen sacred space as being built or that produces or that is somehow made sacred through utilization. A national park does not represent that ethic. That’s how I started looking at it, and wondering what is it about land conservation that is upsetting to the Mormon land ethic.
Watters: What is it in Mormon theology that specifies this sort of cultivating relationship with the landscape?
Gaines Quammen: When Mormonism came into being, conservation was not something that people were thinking about. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830. There was a real interest then in cultivating land, and Joseph Smith Jr. was interested in the concept of the Garden of Eden, and how you cultivate and develop land to be pleasing to the eye of God.
Watters: I often feel like Mormon beliefs are a kind of time capsule. You have that whole utilitarian ideal in Locke’s writings, too, and it’s used by early colonists to justify taking land from Native Americans, because Locke said that if the land wasn’t being put to “productive” use, the people living there had no rights. And Mormonism kind of froze that attitude in scripture, while much of the rest of America moved on.
Gaines Quammen: Yes. When these people began to settle the land, they were Yankee farmers, and they knew how to farm, so they were putting their farms over the choicest pieces of land—the places with water resources. Unfortunately these were places that were hunting grounds and places where indigenous people would harvest different foodstuffs depending on the time of the year. But the settlers saw the land as unused.
The thing that I find heartbreaking about the Mormon history of settlement is that Mormons have this notion that this was finally their sacred space to establish Zion after being badly persecuted in Missouri and Illinois. So they were taking their idea of sacred homeland, and overlaying it on Native homeland. And that includes the Southern Paiute, the Ute, the Navajo—they all thought that the landscape was sacred space.
Other white settlers had overlooked it because it wasn’t productive in the way that white people thought about productivity, but Native people had lived there sustainably by moving and seasonally utilizing game and plants. But then all of a sudden you had a culture that was settling and staying in place and doing it on top of Native land.
"The thing that I find heartbreaking about the Mormon history of settlement is that Mormons have this notion that this was finally their sacred space to establish Zion after being badly persecuted in Missouri and Illinois. So they were taking their idea of sacred homeland, and overlaying it on Native homeland." —Betsy Gaines Quammen
Watters:I feel like indigenous people have been saying this for a long time, that the actual productivity of the land for Native cultures was invisible to European settlers because it was so far outside the colonizers’ definition of productivity. But the Native inhabitants were actually using that land in a very productive and sustainable way.
Gaines Quammen: Absolutely, and because the Mormon people also believe that converting the Native people would hasten the Second Coming—and also that it would lighten their skin, which, I mean, is awful..
Watters: Yeah, what do you even say to that?
Gaines Quammen: But the Mormons wanted to shape Native culture and believed that getting Native peoples to farm was important. There was a total cultural disconnect.
Watters: Towards the beginning of the book, you mention that Nephi Johnson, one of the settlers who came west with Young, rode out through Zion in search of places to farm. You looked at his journal about this trip, and noted that he never once mentioned how beautiful Zion is – just stated that it wasn’t useful for agriculture. I mean….I know it was a different time, but it just seems inconceivable that you could go to Zion and not at least notice that it’s pretty spectacular.
Gaines Quammen: Nephi Johnson was Cliven Bundy’s spiritual great-grandfather. He adopted Johnny Jenson, Bundy’s grandfather. After Mountain Meadows, in which he’d been a participant, he was charged by Brigham Young to find places where Mormons could settle. You have to put yourself in his shoes, and imagine that you’ve been sent out after years of hardship to find safe places for Mormon people to live and farm.
If you’re sent out into this rugged country in search of arable land, you’re not going to look at something like Zion Canyon or the Grand Canyon and say, “Wow, this place is so gorgeous.” You’re just going to see that it doesn’t work for settlement. But it occurred to me too. I wondered why he didn’t notice how incredibly beautiful the place was. But Mormons didn’t see things the way outsiders saw them.
In my dissertation, I talk about this wonderful woman, her name is Lulu Wait, she was a romance novelist, and she grew up right outside of Zion, and she said that she had never realized how beautiful it was until tourists came along and told her family that. It took those outsiders coming in for them to look at it that way. They were just trying to put food on the table, and it was a really hard landscape to farm. They weren’t looking at it as, “This place is so spectacular.” They were looking at it as, “How do we make this rugged landscape productive?”
Pictographs and petroglyphs abound throughout the Four Corners region and Great Basin which represents the promised land for LDS faithful. Gaines Quammen says the history of habitation for millennia by indigenous people is often conveniently overlooked or dismissed based on the premise that converted native people would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. Photography courtesy National Park Service
Watters: When Zion National Park was formed, a lot of people seemed enthusiastic about this kind of public land. There was Reed Smoot, the Congressman who was essential to passing the Organic Act that formed the National Park Service – he was Mormon and a big booster of Zion.
Gaines Quammen: It was an economic opportunity, and tourism was seen as appealing. That ethic has changed since the days of Reed Smoot. There was a ton of enthusiasm and pride about opening Utah up to a larger public initially. I think that at that time, a lot of people felt like there was a possibility of reconciliation with the United States after so many years of adverse relationship. It was a really happy time. The Mormon people were welcoming Americans with open arms when the tunnel opened into the park. And then two things happened.
When they were looking at Cedar Breaks as a tourist attraction, the park service didn’t want to log in the area, and the Forest Service organized with local people and said, “if you keep letting the park service in here to enact these restrictions, you’re not going to be able to use your own landscape.” That was a time when the Park Service and the Forest Service were really butting heads. Then the Park Service established Bryce Canyon as a National Monument, and then eventually as a National Park in 1928, but there were confrontations with ranchers who didn’t want to move their cows. So Bryce grandfathered the cows in.
Then in 1936 the Park Service started talking about making Grand Staircase Escalante into a park or a national monument, and that went on until an idea that finally came into being in 1996, when it was declared a national monument by the Clinton Administration. In the meantime, you have the environmental movement arising and entering the battle, which added another dimension and even more complexity.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part Two of this interview, Ammon Bundy Claims Covid-19 Safety Guidelines Exploited By Government To Attain More Power, Watters and Gaines Quammen discuss a recent conversation she had with Ammon Bundy about coronavirus and what he perceives to be government overreach to contain it, the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and what lay ahead in this time of conflict.