By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena
What do wildfires in the west and the cancellation of a 5th grade music program have in common? A Utah controversy has brought the two together in a surprising way.
While Commissioner Leland Pollock from Garfield County, Utah, believes the patriotic Western Freedom Festival—the first of its kind to be held in southern Utah on Oct. 23–“Is as far from politics as anything you can imagine,” one school district’s decision to withdraw from the event disagrees.
The reason behind Iron County School District’s decision to cancel a patriotic concert to be performed by its 5th grade class at the festival started getting attention on Sept. 26, when the Salt Lake Tribune first reported the story. The Tribune stated:
The district was scheduled to perform a musical program, called Hope [of] America, as part of the festival. But school administrators and event organizers backed out of those plans Friday after receiving negative feedback from parents.
“We’ve stepped out of our participation,” said Steve Burton, director of elementary education for Iron County School District. “It’s our policy not to be involved in events that have a political agenda.”
The Iron County 5th graders were to perform “Hope of America,” a popular musical program, which embraces America’s heritage. According to the Tribune article, the students were learning Hope of America as part of their Utah History curriculum.
“We received a few complaints from parents but the concerns of one of our school board members, Becki Bronson, about the “political agenda” of the Western Freedom Festival had a lot to do with our decision” said Iron County School District Superintendent, Shannon Dulaney in an interview with Watchdog Arena.
In an email correspondence with Bronson, Watchdog Arena was able to confirm her concerns, as indicated by a screenshot (see below) she provided from the Western Freedom Festival Facebook page.
The organizers of the festival support the effort to transfer public lands in the West, currently owned and managed by the federal government, to the management of equivalent state agencies. The festival is organized by Iron County Commissioner David Miller with Garfield, Beaver, Piute, Kane, Washington county commissioners, and the mayor of Escalante.
Spearheaded by Utah’s Ken Ivory of the American Lands Council, the public lands transfer movement has used powerful images of this year’s western wildfires, which have burned some 9 million acres of federally-managed lands, to exemplify the destructive consequences of federal mismanagement.
Though Miller maintains the festival is not political in nature, he told the Tribune, “We don’t want to put our school districts or any of our community in a place where they’re uncomfortable with what we’re doing.”
Looking at the festival’s featured conference tracks, it is no secret that the festival celebrates the themes of the Constitution, including workshops such as “Proper Role of Government” and “Understanding Constitutional Limits.” More significant, perhaps, is its background of conflict that has raged for decades in this region of Southern Utah.
In an interview with Watchdog Arena, Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, one of the festival’s organizers, explained the historical context of public lands in the West. “This is something we deal with in Garfield County all the time. It goes back to the 1970s when Robert Redford came down here and helped shut down the Kaiparowits Power Plant Project.”
In 1976, actor and environmentalist Robert Redford led the effort to halt the installation of a coal-burning power plant in the Kaiparowits region of Southern Utah. The loss of the power plant, which would have created hundreds of jobs and provided cheap electricity to towns as far as California, proved to be economically devastating to the area.
“I think Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other environmentalist groups might have stirred up the parents in this case, turning the school against the festival,” Pollock said.
According to Pollock, 93 percent of Garfield County is federally controlled, and the price paid by locals has been great. He explained why he, along with Dennis Blackburn from Wayne County and Gary Taylor, the mayor of Escalante combined efforts to assemble the first ever Western Freedom Festival: “We wanted to have an event to help the people of Escalante.”
In 1996, the Clinton Administration used the Antiquities Act to create a vast national Monument in the Escalante region of Utah, closing off 1.7 million acres to development. The act destroyed the coal-mining industry in that part of the state. The state of Utah recently declared a state of emergency in the region due to the catastrophic economic impact of decisions made by the federal government.
“This is really about educating people about the dangers of too much federal control; of how folks in Washington can force ranchers off their land, take away our water rights, and shut down our mines with no notion of the pain or damage they cause,” Pollock said.
The effort to transfer management of federally owned lands back to the state of Utah is underway and currently being debated in several western states.
“Those families who want to attend the festival and lend it their full support, can and should attend and participate” said Bronson. “This issue is not about the importance of the festival, because this festival is important and the issue of federal lands should be tackled proactively in this way and with this venue. It’s about the fit of our elementary schools supporting and participating in it.”
Although children in southern Utah are not the source of this controversy, they are on its receiving end.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.