Bears Ears debate at center of proposed act

Hannah Grover
The Natural Bridges National Monument could be incorporated into the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

FARMINGTON — U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced a measure today that, if passed, will determine how a large portion of public land in southeast Utah will be managed.

The bill, known as the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, is the result of three years of work, including multiple meetings with stakeholder organizations. Utah officials created a locally driven effort known as Public Lands Initiative to gather comments and review proposals for land management.

The bill would designate more than 4.5 million acres of federal land in Utah for conservation. Anders Reynolds, who represented the Pew Charitable Trusts — which works to conserve public lands — in the discussions with the Public Lands Initiative, said the bill would give "permanent gold standard protection" in the form of wilderness and conservation areas "for some really amazing landscapes." At the same time, the bill also paves the way for Utah to exchange state-owned land in eastern Utah that has environmentally and archaeologically sensitive sites for federal land that could be developed as state trust land. State trust land is used for extraction of oil, gas and minerals, as well as agriculture, timber, recreation and commercial development.

Some of the land included in the proposal is also located within a region that several groups have petitioned President Barack Obama to designate as the Bears Ears National Monument. A coalition of five tribes known as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has been spearheading the national monument movement for the area.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, the co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said she thinks the bill was introduced too late in the session for something to be passed that provides adequate protection for the region. She said the coalition will continue to ask the president to create the national monument.

Reynolds said if the bill does not move through Congress in a timely fashion, the Pew Charitable Trusts hopes Obama will use the Antiquities Act to declare the area a national monument. Part of the trust's support of the bill comes from the fact that it protects land in seven Utah counties and not just the Bears Ears region.

Willie Greyeyes, the chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah – a nonprofit Native American group that advocates for issues such as public lands policy — said the PLI bill falls short of the organization’s expectations and fails to protect all of the sensitive sites the national monument would protect. He said the region has been experiencing desecration such as graves being robbed and archaeological artifacts being taken.

“People are decorating their living rooms and their yards with it,” he said.

In a statement he released after introducing the bill, Bishop said it will conserve “lands worthy of conservation” while providing economic and recreational opportunities.

A partner bill introduced by Bishop and Chaffetz today would limit executive power to create national monuments in seven Utah counties, including San Juan County. If approved, national monument creation or boundary adjustments to increase the size within the eastern Utah counties could only be done through Congress.

“It’s not that the federal government is malicious, but when they own one-third of America, it is just too much to effectively manage from Washington,” Bishop said in his statement. “Utah is a public lands state. It has always been and always will be. The question is how those public lands are managed. That’s where local government has the advantage. PLI takes that premise and builds it to a reality.”

Lopez-Whiteskunk, who is also a Ute Mountain Ute council delegate, said the region is viewed as an ancestral homeland for her people and also borders the tribe’s White Mesa community.

The inter-tribal coalition left discussions with the Public Lands Initiative last year. One of the dividing issues was how the management of the land would be decided. Lopez-Whiteskunk said the coalition would like an equal say in management decisions while the bill sponsored by Bishop would give the tribes only an advisory role.

“We know what that capacity leads us to,” she said. “It leaves us left out of the conversation.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie will visit southeast Utah on Saturday to learn about the Bears Ears region. A public meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Bluff, Utah, community center, located at the corner of 3rd Street and Mulberry Street. People attending the meeting will voice their opinion about how to protect the region.

“(Jewell’s) presence really does highlight the broad recognition from everyone that this area needs to be protected,” Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Diné Bikeyah, said when reached by phone Thursday morning.

Blue Mountain Diné, a group focused on improving quality of life for Navajo people within San Juan County (Utah), will have representatives at the meeting to voice its support for the bill. Board Vice President Byron Clarke said the organization hopes Jewell will listen to its opinions.

"I think we all want to do what's best for our community," Clarke said.

The Blanding, Utah, resident grew up hiking in the region and fears the proposed national monument status could lead to restrictions on the land, such as entrance fees.

"We just don't want it to go in that direction," he said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.