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Feature: Interior Secretary Hears Diverse Voices in Bears Ears Debate

Six months remain of the Obama administration, and as the clock ticks down, anticipation and apprehension are growing around the possibility that the President will use his executive authority to name one or more new national monuments. Nowhere is the issue more furiously debated than in San Juan County, Utah, home of a proposed monument called the Bears Ears. The monument would encompass 1.9 million acres of public land now mostly under Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction. On Saturday, the debate drew more than a thousand people to the tiny town of Bluff in the southern part of the county for a “listening session” with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other public-lands officials. People from as close as a few blocks away and as far away as California, Idaho, and Wyoming packed the modest community center and overflowed into a tent outside where they sweated in the 108-degree air. Selected local leaders and about 60 members of the public chosen by lottery shared their views; others filled boxes with written comment cards.  

A coalition of five Native American tribes with close ties to the area is behind the Bears Ears proposal. They say the rugged desert landscape rich in cultural and historic sites needs better protection. Their plan calls for the monument to be managed by the tribes themselves, along with representatives of the three federal agencies that currently oversee it. This precedent-setting idea is one reason the tribes are officially advocating for the monument designation.

“By protecting these lands with our five tribes as co-equal managers, you’ll respect tribal sovereignty and our existence as Navajo, Ute, Hopi, and Zuni people into the future,” said Ethel Branch, Navajo Nation attorney general, at Saturday’s meeting. “Making this designation will take courage, and I pray that the president has the courage to make this designation.”

Bears Ears is both sacred and familiar to the five tribes, who for generations have used it for many purposes. Navajo President Russell Begaye strongly supports the monument proposal.

“When we visit the Bears Ears region, we greet these places by their names, as if they were people, other than human people, with whom we can communicate and who can communicate with us,” Begaye said. “Through this relationship we are able to negotiate healing, not just of body but also of mind, soul, and heart but also of community and society. With this, the Navajo Nation respectfully requests that 1.9 million acres of federal public land be designated a national monument pursuant to the Antiquities Act of 1906.”

The Antiquities Act gives the President the authority to unilaterally create national monuments. But many in the West fiercely oppose the top-down approach. As an alternative, Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have introduced a sweeping bill to protect 4.5 million acres in eastern Utah through different designations, including a 1.4-million-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area.

But tribal leaders say the legislative effort does not go far enough. It does not provide for co-equal management by tribes, instead designating a single American Indian “consultant” to represent all Native views on the advisory board. Last year, the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition withdrew from the grassroots legislative process because they felt their input was being ignored.

The chair of the Ute Tribe, Shaun Chapoose, is a member of the coalition.

“It’s only when you sit at the table and talk, and hear your point of view taken seriously, do you get somewhere, and that hasn’t happened,” Chapoose said.

But not all Native people agree a monument designation would be beneficial. Sasha Singer, a resident of Blanding, Utah, says she is worried that she will be excluded from the monument.

“They say it’s for traditional uses—I’m not a traditional Navajo,” said Singer. “I don’t practice the practices that they do. It wouldn’t be fair for me to say, ‘oh, I can go on there because I’m Native American’. I have more integrity than that.”

Lewis Singer, another Navajo resident of Blanding, says simply having tribes manage the monument doesn’t mean that it would be effective. “Even if you have native representatives, what they promise does not come to pass. That’s the government for you,” he said.

Concerns about loss of local control are echoed by many others in Utah, both Anglo and Native American. Danny Palmer of Blanding says the area has enough protection without a monument. “These laws are in place already to help protect and to manage this place already, so that someone can’t come in to illegally drill, or to illegally log, or illegally damage what is here.”

A speaker who identified himself only as Brian said a monument would be divisive. “There’s a lot of anti-federal anger in this state, and a national monument is just going to trigger that to the point that it’ll explode.”

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams says it’s locals who need to decide the matter.

“President Obama said he would not designate a monument until he heard from the local people,” Adams said to applause. “If that’s really and truly the case, then I’m suggesting we have a referendum vote by citizens of San Juan County, and see what the local citizens really want.”

But for many others, the need for protection is paramount. Laurie Webster is an archeologist researching textiles, baskets, wooden implements, and other artifacts excavated from part of the Bears Ears area through the Cedar Mesa Perishables Project.

“There’s really nothing else like them, and these sites really need protection, and they need the additional funding that I think would come with a national monument designation,” Webster said.

Many locals have watched in dismay over the years as ancient Native American artifacts have been pilfered from the landscape. Josh Munson of Dolores, Colorado, says it should have been named a monument 25 years ago. He recalled a conversation he had with a BLM ranger about Grand Gulch, part of the proposed monument.

“He told me that what he had seen was tragic. It was as if a vacuum cleaner had come through the canyons and sucked up all the artifacts, and they were all gone,” Munson said. “And I agreed with him. I said it’s too bad we didn’t protect this a long time ago.”

There was local anger in 1996 when Bill Clinton designated the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument west of San Juan County. That anger lingers today. But others say that monument has been a boon to the area. Amanda Nichols is with Friends of Cedar Mesa.

“Over time, you show that the economic benefits greatly outweigh any of the division, and in a couple of years I think the people will be pretty happy with the amount of money that’s come into this area,” Nichols said.

Secretary Jewell told the crowd in Bluff on Saturday that she was not there to make a final decision, only to listen and learn.

“You don’t get a sense of what is here until you get out on the landscapes, until you meet with the people who are of these communities, and that has been a very rich and heartwarming experience,” Jewell said. “Always respectful, and thank you for starting this meeting and ending this meeting in that same spirit.”

And for those who weren’t quite sure how they felt about the issues, it was still an important event. Hilary Hunger drove five hours from Orem, Utah.  

“I really think that it provides perspective into the democratic process,” Hunger said. “And we’re super polarized in the U.S., and in the election season, and on this issue of public lands, especially in Utah, people don’t take time to listen to the other side. And if you deeply listen, and are open to that, maybe you can see some value in the other perspective that you didn’t have.”

Full audio from some of the interviews in this story will be available on this site soon.

Gail Binkly is a career journalist who has worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette and Cortez Journal, and was the editor of the Four Corners Free Press, based in Cortez.
Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.
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