By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena
Following the abrupt decision last month by officials in Utah’s Iron County School District (ICSD) to cancel a patriotic musical performance by 5th grade students at the upcoming Western Freedom Festival (WFF) because of alleged parental complaints, Watchdog Arena has discovered that the decision resulted from a single complaint from one parent—a former National Park Service administrator of ten years—whose wife is the Bureau of Land Management’s regional manager of the district where ICSD is located.
Documents obtained by Watchdog Arena through an open records request made Oct. 2 to the ICSD show that southern Utah environmentalist Chris Zinda, who is married to the state BLM’s Color Country District Manager Heather Whitman, is the lone voice who submitted “negative feedback” that led to the cancellation of the children’s performance of “Hope of America.”
At 1:15 a.m. on Sept. 23, Zinda sent the following email to ICSD President Michelle Jorgenson, other school officials, Southern Utah University’s Vice Provost for International Affairs Stephen Allen (the university where the festival will take place), and the following Utah newspapers and broadcasters: The Spectrum, St. George News, David Noyce, Matt Canham and Kristen Moulton of the Salt Lake Tribune, KUTV News, Fox 13 Now News, the Deseret News and KSL News.
Zinda’s email reads:
I just found out from another concerned parent that elementary school children in Cedar City/Iron County schools are scheduled to perform at the Western Freedom Festival on October 23. This political event is sponsored by Commissioner David Miller, other Utah Commissioners, and the Koch funded* American Lands Council.
I am not happy that my elementary age school children are planned to be used-with the consent of the Iron County School Board and without my consent-to make a political statement and promote organizers “states [sic] rights” position to return federal lands to states. You are currently allowing the use of school time, money and facilities to prep for singing and performing at the event.
While organizers do have the right to hold their political rally, they do not have the right to use our children and tax dollars during school hours in this fashion. I believe, neither do you [sic].
Our children should not be used as political pawns. They are far too young to even understand nor give their consent. Keep them out of this political fray.
I am asking you to convene an emergency school board meeting and put a stop to this nonsense.
I look forward to your response.
An ICSD official was able to confirm to Watchdog Arena that no other parents logged complaints about the WFF, and that the concerns of Stephen Allen arose from the email Zinda sent to him. A scanned document provided by ICSD also shows the only phone call to the district regarding the district’s involved with the WFF was from Zinda.
On Oct. 1, Watchdog Arena reported the 5th grade choir controversy, which made headlines across the state initially from a Salt Lake Tribune report. From that story, we were led to believe that ICSD cancelled the performance in response to “negative feedback from parents.” ICSD school board member Becki Bronson also told Watchdog Arena that she and other officials had concerns about “the political agenda” surrounding the festival’s use of powerful images of western wildfires on public lands on their social media.
The American Lands Council, a 501(c)(4) non-profit of individuals, counties, businesses, and organizations that was founded by county commissioners in 2012 and headed by state Rep. Kenneth Ivory (R-Salt Lake County), has been a leader in the effort to transfer the authority of public lands from federal agencies like the BLM to state and local control. The ALC and the “public lands transfer” measures its supports, undermine federal agents and the environmentalist movement.
Following the Salt Lake Tribune’s initial report about the WFF controversy, Zinda wrote a letter to the editor castigating the newspaper for not taking a harder line against organizers of the event. Zinda has a history of denouncing efforts by local governments which try to address economic issues through resource development in their areas.
Beginning in 2009, while living in Oregon with his wife and children, Zinda stridently opposed plans in Lake County, Oregon to revive its dying economy by producing and exporting renewable fuels. At the time, Whitman, Zinda’s wife, worked as a BLM district ranger in Oregon. Zinda also led the opposition to a renewables biomass plant near the Collins Lakeview sawmill in Oregon. More recently, in September 2014, Zinda supported an anti-biomass petition he filed in Oregon with the Environmental Protection Agency. He joined several environmentalist groups including Energy Justice and Wildearth Guardians on the petition.
Whitman moved to Utah from Oregon and began her job managing the Color Country District earlier this year and Zinda and their young children followed at the end of the school year.
A self-described “activist and homemaker,” Zinda now lives in New Harmony, Utah, with Whitman, who, as a BLM manager, lends a troubling dynamic to the WFF controversy. Whitman oversees the Color Country District in Utah, which is ground-zero for a recent high-profile clash between the counties represented by organizers of the WFF, and the federal agency. County commissioners who organized the festival are from Iron, Garfield, Beaver, Piute, Kane, Washington counties, as well as the mayor of Escalante.
Since Whitman’s arrival this year, relationships between local officials and the BLM in her district have deteriorated. According to a Sept. 29 Watchdog Arena report on the BLM’s “betrayal” of an agreement made in Utah in 2009, Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner cited new field officers at the St. George BLM office, which is within the jurisdiction of Whitman’s Color County district, as one possible source of the controversial Resource Management Plan: “We now have new people there who were not around at the time of the original agreement. I think there’s a lot of pressure coming down from D.C. to go even further.”
*Watchdog Arena interviewed Ken Ivory of the American Lands Council who confirmed that his organization receives no funding from the Koch Foundation.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.