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Bears Ears Middle Ground Slips Away

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Utah political leaders make opening statements at Senate field hearing Wednesday on Bears Ears

Both sides in the Bears Ears fight have called for compromise. But it increasingly looks unlikely they’ll find middle ground following a rowdy U.S. Senate field hearing Wednesday in Blanding.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, hosted the field hearing at San Juan High School. He backs legislation as the best means of conserving eastern Utah’s landscape, traditions and archeology. Lee knocked the Obama Administration for skipping Wednesday’s hearing, as well as the tribal coalition behind the monument proposal.

“We hope that the Bears Ears Coalition will reconsider,” he said in an opening statement, “and will meet with us to discuss how best to preserve Bears Ears.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, gathered stakeholder input over three years for his Public Lands Initiative, or PLI, and used that as the foundation for the legislation.

But critics say it allows too much development and too little protection -- even though the legislation includes national conservation areas.

Gov. Gary Herbert praised the PLI for having local buy-in. But, because it relies on the Obama Administration to declare a new national monument that the tribes would help manage, the governor criticized the tribal coalition’s proposal.

“If this is not some kind of political tomahawk to be used, no pun intended,” he began, “if this really is about the Bears Ears region, protecting, conserving the land, the PLI is by far the superior way to go about doing it.”

Tribal coalition members have met with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and her staff – most recently during her trip to eastern Utah earlier this month. But they said disrespect and disregard for their views kept them from Wednesday’s hearing. And conservation groups said they were not even invited.

“The PLI is a sham,” said Scott Groene, director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “It’s a one-sided, terrible bill. And at this point, it’s time for President Obama to move forward with protecting the Bears Ears.”

The current congressional session has just 33 days remaining. Monument advocates say that’s not enough time to come together around the PLI legislation, but plenty of time for the president to protect Bears Ears as a national monument before he leaves office.

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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