Threats of violence, fake land grabs proliferate in Utah

By Phil Taylor | 06/10/2016 01:08 PM EDT

One flier advertises an open hunting season on southeast Utah backpackers, with no harvest limits and all weapons permitted.

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.

One flier advertises an open hunting season on southeast Utah backpackers, with no harvest limits and all weapons permitted.

Another carries a fake news release from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell: The federal government plans to seize more than 4 million acres of the Navajo Nation’s land.

A third flier advertises a July 17 party in Blanding, Utah, to celebrate President Obama’s designation of a Bears Ears National Monument that would supposedly happen that day. But Utah Navajos aren’t invited, the flier states. They can kiss access to their sacred lands goodbye.


"Utah Navajos, stay away from our party," it reads. "Everyone else come and celebrate with us."

The postings discovered in the past month at trailheads, campgrounds, a post office and gas stations in San Juan County show that the debate surrounding the proposed 1.9-million-acre national monument is getting nasty.

Conservationists reported finding this flier at a trailhead on Cedar Mesa, which President Obama is considering preserving as a national monument. | Photo courtesy of Ballots Not Bullets.

It’s not clear who posted them and whether they come from the same person or different authors.

"I think they’re repulsive, and whoever generates them should not be rewarded," said County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who opposes a Bears Ears monument and in April served a 10-day jail sentence for leading an illegal all-terrain vehicle ride in 2014 in Recapture Canyon to protest federal land restrictions.

Monument proponents suspect anti-monument activists posted the fliers to foment discord among Navajos, whose elected leaders firmly back the Bears Ears proposal. Roughly 47 percent of San Juan’s 15,772 residents are American Indian, most of them Navajo.

The flier promoting the killing of backpackers does not mention Bears Ears, but conservationists said it’s hard to ignore the connection.

"The timing of it seems pretty obvious," said Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit based in Bluff, Utah, near the southeast border of the proposed monument. "It’s a serious issue."

Cynthia Wilson, a community outreach coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo environmental group that helped design the Bears Ears proposal, called the tactics "despicable and likely criminal."

"This is a clear attempt to turn people against a Bears Ears National Monument by spreading lies, inciting racism and impersonating federal officials," she said.

Lyman had another theory about the fliers.

"I think Diné Bikéyah is generating them," he said. "They post it and say, ‘Look, there’s racism, and it justifies a national monument.’ That sentiment doesn’t exist here."

Few in San Juan disagree that enhanced protections are needed for the Bears Ears region, which includes Cedar Mesa, a scenic expanse of juniper and pinyon forests, winding sandstone canyons, and an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including Native American cliff dwellings, rock art and burial pits.

The flier advertising a party for Bears Ears – Utah Navajos are not invited – was found at the Bluff post office and a gas station, according to Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB). | Photo courtesy of UDB.

But there’s a deep divide over how much of the landscape to preserve and whether those protections should come from Congress or from Obama using the Antiquities Act. A draft bill by House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) would designate a 1.1-million-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area, leaving far more acreage available to multiple uses like drilling, mining and motorized recreation.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni governments, backs a presidential designation, though there are at least several Utah Navajos who oppose such a move, including San Juan Commissioner Rebecca Benally. Yesterday, the Utah Tribal Leaders group passed a formal resolution of support for a Bears Ears National Monument. Official representatives from seven of Utah’s eight tribes have backed the proposal, UDB said. The resolution was opposed by May Preston, president of the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

Jewell is planning to visit Utah this summer to discuss conservation proposals — both legislative and otherwise — and Bears Ears is widely assumed to be on her agenda.

Use of the Antiquities Act touches raw nerves in southern Utah, where elected officials still fume over President Clinton’s surprise 1996 election-year decision to designate the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a move that quashed a proposed coal mine and drew accusations of federal overreach.

In subsequent years, elected officials and ranchers openly flouted new Bureau of Land Management restrictions. Kane County erected dozens of road signs allowing motorized travel on monument lands that BLM had closed to protect sensitive desert resources. In 2000, after BLM impounded dozens of cattle to protect the range from drought, ranchers stealthily stole the bovines back from the auction yard.

Armed protests ‘a possibility’

Conservationists and Southwest tribes want a Bears Ears monument, but some are fearful of the blowback new land protections would generate, particularly in light of the recent armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who in early June hosted an event with Gov. Gary Herbert (R) at the Natural Bridges National Monument to denounce the Bears Ears monument proposal, warned Jewell in a private meeting in his office on March 8 that a repeat of Clinton’s monument could prompt an armed confrontation, according to an article in The Washington Post.

Bishop, when asked yesterday if a monument could spark armed protests in Utah, said, "If you keep refusing to listen to people, it’s always a possibility.

"It would be the dumbest thing the administration could ever do," Bishop said. "The Native Americans who live there don’t want it."

Fliers calling for the shooting of backpackers have heightened tensions.

One of the fliers was discovered May 31 by Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a board member of Friends of Cedar Mesa, at the Slickrock Trail, a gateway to cliff dwellings, pictographs and petroglyphs, Ewing said.

It reads, "Colorado Backpacker Season," and is purportedly sponsored by the Protect San Juan County Association, an organization that does not appear to exist.

"There is no limit on how many may be harvested," it says. "Any weapon may be used."

The friends group has discovered the flier at other trailheads and has taken them down, but someone is putting them back up, Ewing said. Utah Diné Bikéyah reported finding the flier at BLM’s Sand Island campground along the San Juan River southwest of Bluff.

"I believe that the BLM is taking this seriously," Ewing said. "It’s been referred to their agents in Salt Lake City."

The flier misrepresents county residents, he said.

"The San Juan County residents I know are a much more peaceful, civil lot than what’s depicted on that flier," Ewing said. "We sometimes disagree, but we almost always disagree civilly."

Criminal acts

Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw encouraged people to report knowledge of this activity or the location of any fliers to BLM so that they may be removed.

"It’s really unfortunate and disappointing when a single person or small group of individuals behaves this way, trying to incite fear to bully their way through an ongoing conversation about the management and conservation of public lands," Kershaw said.

Wilson of UDB discovered the fake Jewell press release and invitation to the Bears Ears event in Mexican Hat — on the northern border of the Navajo Nation — and Bluff on May 22.

fake news release
This fake news release from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was found at the Bluff post office, according to UDB. | Photo courtesy of UDB.

The Jewell release says 4 million acres of reservation lands will "revert" to the BLM.

Interior confirmed that the release is fake and said impersonating a federal official is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The Bears Ears flier advertises a party hosted by UDB and promises "Lots of good food" from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Friends of Cedar Mesa.

"No Utah Navajos are invited because we in Window Rock [the Navajo Nation capital] are taking your sacred land and stopping your wood cutting and other activities on this land and you have been complaining about that," it says. "Window Rock is also going to take your oil money to spend in Window Rock."

UDB said another fake letter accompanied the flier in some locations. Falsely signed by Albert Holiday, vice president of the Navajo Nation’s Oljato Chapter, it warns that a monument would block Navajo access to the land to gather firewood and medicinal herbs and perform sacred activities. Holiday said he supports the monument and did not write it.

If history is any indication, it is unlikely Obama would take steps to ban such activities in a Bears Ears monument.

The president 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."

Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.