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The ACLU is NOT an Environmental Organization. So Why Did We Comment on Bears Ears?

05 June 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

We have a simple formula (overly simple, really) for explaining the issues the ACLU of Utah gets involved in. people holding signs

If it 1) happens in Utah, 2) implicates constitutional principles, meaning it has to involve the government, and 3) directly involves human beings...it might just be something that the ACLU of Utah will work on. In addition, we have board- and staff-identified strategic priority areas to help us narrow what would otherwise be a completely unmanageable load of potential projects.

That means, for example, we don't advocate for the rights of animals (fails the #3 test), but we DO advocate for the rights of animal rights activists to protest on public property.

It also means that we don't typically work on environmental issues - though we have often advocated for the rights of environmentalists to protest, petition the government, and have access to information about government policies and practices.

We helped a youth-led group called iMatter challenge a Utah government policy that required protestors to obtain expensive insurance coverage in order to march down State Street in Salt Lake City. We also joined the rest of our ACLU colleagues nationwide in objecting to the government's militarized response to peaceful protestors along the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Clearly, the ACLU is fiercely committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of community members to petition their government through free speech, association, and expresssion activities. Our work in support of both iMatter and the Standing Rock Sioux exemplifies this - as does our objection to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's cancellation of the federally-registered trademark for the Washington D.C. NFL team's incredibly offensive name (a racial slur against Native Americans that our staff does not use even when discussing the ACLU's case).

Is the First Amendment, then, the reason why the ACLU of Utah submitted a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke as part of the recent public comment period over the future of the Bears Ears National Monument designation? Yes! But not exclusively.

As we noted in our letter to Secretary Zinke, "Since 1974, it has been the ACLU’s national policy to support Native Americans’ right to retain their cultural and religious heritage and to enforce the commitments made to them by the United States in treaties, compacts, and by other governmental actions."

This approach is deeply rooted in an acknowledgment of the historical persecution of Native American people by the United States' government. It also reflects the ACLU's understanding that historically marginalized groups are most often and most easily ignored by the government when it comes to accepting public comment.

We submitted our comments to impress upon the Secretary that Native American groups in Utah had done a great deal of work to get the national monument designated in the first place, and that their original petitions to the federal government for this designation should not be ignored by the new administration. We also reminded Secretary Zinke that "there were times" during the designation discussions "when efforts to advocate for this Monument were threatened with improper investigations by the State government that may
have chilled stakeholder voices. However, the importance of the First Amendment protections held firm and allowed the dialogue regarding the proposed monument to carry on."

In the case of the Bears Ears National Monument designation debate, the ACLU of Utah's formula for involvement holds strong:

  1. It definitely is happening in Utah.
  2. It certainly implicates foundational constitutional principles (and involves the government).
  3. It directly involves not just human beings, but a group of human beings that has been abused and marginalized by U.S. governments since the inception of the United States.