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Bears Ears Monument Debate Divides San Juan County

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell begins a three-day tour of southeastern Utah Thursday. She’s planning to visit archeological sites that would be protected in the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. She’s also meeting people who say local ideas should drive conservation, not Washington.

I’m riding in Jonah Yellowman’s SUV as he navigates a dusty dirt road. Deep redrock canyons filled with cliff dwellings are obscured in our dust. And we’re headed now toward the crux of the controversy, twin buttes at the forested crest of Cedar Mesa.

“We’re at the top,” he says, “right in the middle of Bears Ears.”

Regina Lopez Whiteskunk steps from the passenger seat onto the red dirt. She takes a deep breath. Bears Ears, she says, is a place where you can hear your heartbeat.

“It’s beautiful. It’s got a sense of coolness, calming, just peacefulness,” she says. “And I’m really glad to be here today because my life has been crazy over the last several months and to be able to take time out to just soak it up – the sunlight, the wind. ”

Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribal commission, has been busy because she’s co-chair of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition. It’s a group leading the effort to persuade President Barack Obama to declare a new national monument here, a sacred place for five tribes in the region.

“Christians, they go: ‘Our Dear Heavenly Father’,” says Yellowman, a Navajo. “Us, we go: ‘Mother Earth, Father Sky, four sacred mountains’.”

The president could protect this landscape with his signature. The 1906 Antiquities Act gives him the power to safeguard the archeological treasures that seem to be everywhere and tribal traditions like gathering herbs and firewood. And that’s what the tribes are asking him to do.

“Our children, our grandchildren, generations to generations, we want them to see this,” Yellowman says. “We want him to keep it like that.”

The Bears Ears Monument fight isn’t only about one-point-nine million acres. It’s also about who gets to say how all of this land is used.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams says he wants antiquities protected, too. But he also wants public lands to include mining, ranching and riding off-road vehicles in the backcountry. Adams says traditions that locals cherish would be limited in a monument.

“They are proposals that will be designations for one interest and one interest only,” he says. “There are not multiple-use proposals.”

Many locals favor the approach of Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative. It designates areas for conservation, off-roading, ranching and natural resource development here in San Juan County and six others. And it includes an idea that stakeholders in San Juan County hammered out to protect Bears Ears as a National Conservation Area.

“I'm talking about people that live and work in San Juan County every day,” says Adams, who’s proud of the hard-won agreement and their proposal to help guide the NCA. “That's the proposal that we have been backing from Day One is the citizen's advisory council proposal.”

Just across the street in Monticello is the local newspaper, the San Juan Record.

“To me, it’s about process,” says Editor Bill Boyle.

He says the citizens’ proposal just needs more time, and he wants the Obama administration to back off until Congress approves Bishop’s bill.

“As unsavory as the legislative process is -- you know it's making sausage -- the PLI process has been a very open and very public process,” he says. “Everyone's invited to the table. Everyone.”

Utah’s Republican political leaders have pressed points like these as they petitioned Obama to scrap the monument idea. State lawmakers even passed a resolution in special session demanding a voice in any decision.

Tension has been mounting for months. And, while some have warned a monument will spark violence in rural Utah, locals insist they’re more sensible than that.

“I think the thing that that people need to understand is this is truly an extraordinary land,“ says Steve Simpson, who’s lived in Bluff most of his life and operates the Twin Rocks Trading Post. It’s named after a pair of Navajo heroes, and its café and lodge stand just beyond the proposed monument boundary.

Simpson favors a monument to aid the local economy and to protect the ancient history that’s scattered here just about everywhere.

“It will be a huge asset to future generations,” he says, “if we can protect and safeguard it.

A national monument or a national conservation area -- the heated discussion over both continues here in southeastern Utah. But, for one conservation group, the question boils down to what approach can succeed, whether through an act of Congress or the stroke of a president’s pen.

“We're pretty agnostic as to how that happens as long as it's real protection,” says Josh Ewing, director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa.

He says Bears Ears isn’t only a national concern. The stakes are international, he says, because the archeological riches in San Juan County are so vast -- and so vulnerable. He doesn’t want it to become casualty in the power struggle between a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president. Ewing’s skeptical that Congress can act soon enough.

“I’d love to see Congress do the job, but congressional gridlock shouldn't stop internationally significant places from being protected.”

Back up on Bears Ears, Whiteskunk and Yellowman have spotted a pair of redtail hawks cruising the skies. They wonder if it’s an omen about the monument.

“Wow,” Yellowman says.

“Wow,” Whiteskunk agrees.

“There’s our great leader right there,” he muses. “They tell us it’s a good sign. And our ancestors, our loved ones, they look after us.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will visit this place on Friday. And, back in Washington, Congressman Bishop is expected to introduce his bill this week.

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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