Battle over Bears Ears intensifies in Utah

By Phil Taylor | 05/18/2016 01:26 PM EDT

Debate over a 1.9-million-acre national monument in southeast Utah is escalating this week as state lawmakers prepare to take up a formal resolution opposing President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act in the Beehive State.

Bears Ears are a pair of buttes located in the southeastern portion of Utah.

Bears Ears are a pair of buttes located in the southeastern portion of Utah. Photo by J. Brew, courtesy of Flickr.

Debate over a 1.9-million-acre national monument in southeast Utah is escalating this week as state lawmakers prepare to take up a formal resolution opposing President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act in the Beehive State.

A poll released yesterday by Creation Justice Ministries, a Washington, D.C., faith-based environmental organization, found 71 percent of registered Utah voters support Obama designating a Bears Ears national monument to protect the area’s tribal cliff dwellings, rock art, burial sites, pit houses and ancient roads.

But several Navajos joined state lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert (R) yesterday on the steps of the statehouse to denounce the monument proposal, which they argue lacks local support and would limit tribal access to firewood, medicinal plants and ceremonial sites.


The conservative, Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute yesterday also released a five-minute documentary featuring testimony from Utah Navajos who oppose a national monument.

Bears Ears is believed to be near the top of Obama’s list of tracts to permanently protect under the Antiquities Act. At 1.9 million acres, it would be his largest land-based designation to date — and his most controversial.

The proposal is strongly opposed by Utah’s congressional delegation and Herbert, who hand-delivered a letter to Obama in February warning that a unilateral designation would "only exacerbate an already tense situation" surrounding public land management in Utah.

The proposal is backed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, with support from the elected councils of the Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, Hopi and Ute tribes. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is scheduled to visit Utah this summer to discuss "a range of conservation proposals, legislative and otherwise," to protect public lands. Monument proponents believe Bears Ears will be on her agenda, but Jewell aides have been mum on the details of the trip.

A designation would carry support from most Utahans, according to yesterday’s poll, performed by Public Opinion Strategies.

"Voters value protecting cliff dwellings, Mormon pioneer artifacts and other unique historic sites from looters," said Shantha Ready Alonso, executive director of Creation Justice Ministries. "They want to continue enjoying recreational activities, conserve wildlife habitat, and provide opportunities for families and children to spend time together and explore nature."

The telephone survey of 500 registered voters was conducted May 11, 12 and 14 and had an error margin of 4.38 percentage points.

It found that roughly half of respondents had heard nothing at all about the Bears Ears proposal.

Respondents were told that national monuments provide protections similar to national parks, but that activities like camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, off-highway vehicle use and ranching have continued in Utah’s national monuments.

They were asked if they support a "proposal that originated with five local Native American tribes" to protect 1.9 million acres of "existing public lands surrounding the Bears Ears buttes south of Canyonlands National Park as a national monument, in large part to protect ancient cliff dwellings and sacred Native American sites."

Seventy-one percent of respondents said they "strongly" or "somewhat" support the measure, while 20 percent said they "strongly" or "somewhat" oppose it.

"Support for designating these public lands as a national monument is broad-based across age, gender, religion, political party and geographic regions of the state," said Lori Weigel, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies.

The poll found that 75 percent of voters in the Salt Lake area, 71 percent on the Wasatch Front and 67 percent in the rest of the state support the monument.

Monument critics say there’s little support for the proposal in San Juan County.

"We know the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf," said Utah Rep. Mike Noel (R) in a tweet posted by the Utah House Republican Majority. "These people live there."

‘Wrong way of treating our land’

The Sutherland Institute documentary features interviews with Navajos from the Aneth Chapter, which has broken from six other Navajo chapter houses in Utah to oppose an Obama-designated monument.

"Currently, there’s a group of people that are trying to make Bears Ears [into] a national monument, and they have went outside of the tribe and even as far as Oklahoma to help them make it into a national monument," Susie Philemon of the Aneth Chapter says in the video.

Chester Johnson, also of the Aneth Chapter, called a monument the "wrong way of treating our land."

The video claims that a monument designation would prevent Navajo people from cutting wood from the public lands to heat their homes, cook their food or build fences.

Obama has thus far made no attempts to restrict traditional uses like grazing and tribal activities within the dozens of monuments he has proclaimed.

In his March 25, 2013, proclamation designating the 243,000-acre Río Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico, for example, he protected tribal uses, writing, "Nothing in this proclamation shall be construed to preclude the traditional collection of firewood and piñon nuts in the monument for personal non-commercial use consistent with the purposes of this proclamation."

The Navajo Nation Council last fall said statements that local Navajos do not support the monument are false.

"There has been, and continues to be, support from six of seven Utah chapters and the overwhelming support of local Navajo people for the Bears Ears proposal," Council Delegate Davis Filfred said at the time.

A year ago, the council’s Náabik’iyátí’ Committee unanimously passed a resolution in support of the federal designation of Bears Ears, which is the ancestral home of many Southwestern tribes.

Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which backs the monument, said opposition from a minority of Navajos at yesterday’s press conference on the steps of the Utah statehouse should not derail a popular monument.

"I guess the takeaway is that because not every single Native American in the state or region supports a Bears Ears national monument — the support by the Navajo Nation and other tribes is in question, and the monument shouldn’t happen or if it does happen would be illegitimate," he said. "By that same token, since not every single Utahan supports the Utah Legislature and its hare-brained hijinks, they are similarly acting beyond their authority and without support."