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Lawmakers Take First Step to Get In On Monument Fight

Judy Fahys/KUER
Rebecca Benally and Cynthia Wilson, members of the Navajo tribe in Utah, testify on opposite perspectives on rumors of the rumored Bears Ears National Monument proposal.

Dozens of people attended a hearing at the State Capitol on Wednesday wearing t-shirts that said: “Protect Bears Ears.”

But Republican members of the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands took the opposite position. They passed a resolution objecting to the President’s use of the Antiquities Act to create the rumored monument in southeastern Utah. Now the Republican-controlled Legislature is on record in the super-heated fight to stop President Obama from declaring a new national monument in Utah. 

On Wednesday, GOP lawmakers bitterly recalled how then-president Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument two decades ago.

“After we get snake-bitten once, and we recognize this possibility, then we decide we’d better take some pro-active action. That’s what we’re doing here,” said Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville.

The contentious discussion included comments from San Juan County Councilwoman Rebecca Benally, who’s also a Navajo. She wants Bears Ears protected as a national conservation area managed by locals – just like Congressman Rob Bishop is proposing in his Public Lands Initiative.

“I’m here to tell you that a national monument will be a devastation for my Utah, Navajo, grassroots people,” she told the commission, adding that those who favor a monument were wrong.

Meanwhile, the monument idea is backed by a broad, national coalition of Native American leaders, including other Utahns. Cynthia Wilson, a University of Utah student who’s also a Navajo tribal member from the Monument Valley area, said 6 of the 7 Utah Navajo chapter houses have voted support for a 1.9-milllion-acre national monument – protection that includes Bears Ears Butte and numerous sacred sites. Wilson proudly pointed out members of five tribes would manage it.

“We do have a history of broken treaties,” she said, “but this is our time to make a difference by working together and co-managing the land and protecting our sacred sites.”

The resolution passed over the objections of the commission’s two Democrats. A few hours later, Republican Governor Gary Herbert added the non-binding resolution to the agenda for a special session that’s scheduled for next month. 

Herbert and Utahns in Congress have been vocal in their opposition to the Bears Ears monument, especially since the Bishop lands initiative began to stumble.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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