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Could November election bring changes to San Juan County, Utah's government and its positions regarding Bears Ears National Monument?

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FARMINGTON — Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah has joined Notre-Dame Cathedral and Easter Island on a list of most endangered places for 2020. 

World Monuments Fund released its annual watch list on Oct. 29, containing 25 sites. 

Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama at the end of his term in December 2016.

Alastair Lee Bitsói, a spokesman for Utah Diné Bikéyah, said it is an honor to have Bears Ears included on the list. The advocacy group has spent years working to protect the region and is currently suing the federal government, including President Donald Trump.

Politics: Navajo Nation plans to sue Trump after Bears Ears reduction

Utah Diné Bikéyah alleges Trump's administration illegally reduced the national monument's size when he issued an executive order in December 2017. 

Utah Diné Bikéyah is one of several organizations suing the Trump administration, including the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The coalition is a group of tribes — including Navajo Nation — that call the Bears Ears region home and advocated for the creation of the national monument.

Trump's administration filed to dismiss the case, but, on Sept. 30, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan denied that request.

World Monuments Fund states the site is threatened by a proposed monument management plan released in July. The plan allows installation of utility lines and access roads as well as off-highway vehicle recreation and cattle grazing. In addition, lands removed for the original boundaries have been opened up for oil and gas development.

Friends of Cedar Mesa Communications Director Jocelyn Meyers said inclusion on the list attests to the international significance of Bears Ears, especially since the list includes Notre-Dame and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

More: Udall introduces bill to prevent presidents from shrinking national monuments

More: A year after size reduction, Bears Ears National Monument fight continues

Utah state representative disagrees with assertion of threats

Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, disagreed with assertions that oil, gas, mining or cattle grazing are major threats to the monument.

He said the Bureau of Land Management’s master leasing plan had already withdrawn the Bears Ears area from oil and gas extraction, and most of the existing uranium leases have been abandoned and will not be renewed. He said the active leases within the monument have been grandfathered in, meaning they will continue because they existed prior to the monument’s creation.

In addition, Lyman said grazing has been steadily declining. He credits that trend to “manipulative measures by federal agencies who were responding to threats and lawsuits from radical environmental groups such as Western Watersheds and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.”

“I have always said that there is no problem so bad that government involvement will not make it worse,” Lyman said. “Bears Ears Monument is a classic example of that. Environmental groups with a single purpose run roughshod over federal agencies and local elected officials who have a more holistic understanding of the area, and who have a vested interest in serving all interested parties rather than a single objective.”

Lyman: Increasing tourism threatens Bears Ears

A factor some monument opponents, including Lyman, say threatens Bears Ears is the increased tourism — which is also highlighted by World Monuments Fund.

The region contains ancestral Puebloan, Navajo and Ute archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings and burial sites. Some of them are easily accessible by visitors and have no fencing to keep people from leaning on or climbing onto fragile walls.

More: Zinke says everyone wants to protect Bears Ears

Lyman said visitation to areas in the Bears Ears region, including Indian Creek, Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch, has increased by about 700% since Obama created the national monument. He highlighted that the iconic House on Fire ruins received 90 signatures in its guest book in 2016. Meanwhile, this spring, 168 people signed the book in a single day and visitation on the following days remained high as well.

“The local citizens, who have actual affinity for these places, objected to the Monument declaration because they foresaw the damages that would be done by increased visitation,” Lyman said. “Instead of being listened to by the administration they were castigated by groups like World Monuments Fund, and Conservation Lands Foundation.”

In terms of visitation, Bitsói and Lyman both say the increased tourism could impact the cultural sites.

“We encourage people to visit Bears Ears, but to visit with respect,” Bitsói said, adding that people should not geotag sensitive sites and should treat Bears Ears as if they were walking into a church or the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Upcoming election could lead to government changes

Bitsoi said there are many things that threaten the cultural sites and landscape, including extractive industries. However, he views the upcoming election as the most immediate threat.

On Nov. 5, San Juan County, Utah, will have a special election with a single ballot question: “Shall a Study Committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in San Juan County’s form of government?”

This could lead to the San Juan County Commission in Utah being increased from three to five members, a move that Bitsói said would hurt Native American voters in San Juan County.

The proposition comes after Navajo and Democratic residents in San Juan County won the majority representation on the San Juan County Commission following court orders to redraw districts. The court found that the prior districts had disenfranchised Navajo voters, but the new boundaries left some white, conservative residents in Blanding, Utah, feeling voiceless.

Proponents of the proposition say increasing the size of the county commission would prevent unintentional open meetings violations because it would take three commissioners to form a quorum rather than two. They also argue that a five-member commission would be more effective because more members could share the work load.

Bitsói said he believes the controversy surrounding Bears Ears National Monument directly led to the proposition being added to the special election ballot.

The previous commission spent approximately $500,000 opposing the national monument. Now the San Juan County Commission is lobbying to have the former boundaries restored.

The dynamics of the San Juan County Commission could change if the number of commissioners is increased.

“It could possibly restore the old power dynamic of San Juan County,” Bitsói said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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