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White House Challenge On Bears Ears: Protecting A Source Of Local Pride

U.S. Interior Deparment
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (on the pinto at the far left) is expected to make recommendations on Bears Ears any day -- rescinding it, shrinking it or leaving the boundaries set by the Obama administration.

Any day now, the Trump Administration is due to announce its decision on the future of twenty-one national monuments. Bears Ears in southeastern Utah is one of them.

People there are fiercely proud of where they live -- and protective. And that means the Trump administration is probably going to find it challenging to find the right balance and solve the problems that already concern nearby residents.

As one of his first steps in carrying out the Trump administration’s national monument review, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a field visit to Utah back in May. He stopped at a working ranch and desert research center just outside inside the Bears Ears National Monument.

A rainstorm made Zinke skip a planned hike to a rock art panel. But it didn’t stop him from examining soil crusts. They’re fragile plant communities that basically do the crucial work of holding the desert landscape together.

Soon after, the storm broke, and Zinke held court with reporters. 

“Utah has really spectacular land,” he said. “I actually was not prepared at the beauty and the cultural background of what you have. So, if you're if you're from Utah, you got to be awful proud.”

The state’s Republican elected officials and many locals had already been asking the Trump administration to scrap the monument completely.

“I think there's a solution out there,” said Zinke. “The solution is -- because everyone's on the same page of what's, what's important.”

Native Americans, archaeologists and conservationists nationwide have pressed Zinke to safeguard Bears Ears by leaving the monument as it is. It’s what the Interior Secretary has recommended so far for six monuments on the original list of 27.

But, even back in May, he hinted the controversy’s not going away regardless of the administration’s final decision.

“No matter what,” he said, “I mean, people love to litigate.”

Credit U.S. Interior Department
U.S. Interior Department
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and San Juan County rancher Heidi Redd walked through a downpour to see some of the extraordinary landscape in the Bears Ears National Monument.

Heidi Redd has lived at Dugout Ranch and worked it for half a century. She’s seen more and more tourists, more rock climbers, more archaeology sightseers over the years. She’s sometimes seen the damage they’ve done to the ruins, the rock art and those vital soil crusts.

She called it “unintentional vandalism.”

“We need to settle this squabble get it over with and move on as so we can protect things that way we need to,” said Redd, who was standing next to Zinke when he mentioned the likely lawsuits. “And I know the secretary is as concerned as I am about this.”

Redd pointed out the federal government hasn’t funded or staffed these public lands properly -- ever. Zinke agreed. And now the proposed budget would cut 4,000 employees from Interior’s payroll. Still, Zinke’s visit left Redd hopeful.

“I was pleasantly surprised that he does understand this and recognizes that this isn't something that we can study for years or put off,” she said. “We need to make the decision and make it soon.”

Since Zinke’s visit in May, he’s received comments from around 2.5 million Americans who want the national monuments to remain intact. That’s exactly opposite what San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman wants.

“People in San Juan County -- this is not a political issue” to them, he said, sitting in his accounting office. “It's where we live. And it's, it's who we are.”

Lyman sees the monument as more federal overreach. He’s served jail time over leading a protest on a dirt road that federal land managers had closed. Last spring, he shared his concerns with Zinke in person, even riding alongside the interior secretary on horseback during that spring visit.

“The whole idea that this is a bitter contest within the county -- that's an external narrative, and it's a false narrative,” he said.

Lyman wants Zinke to scrap the monument, so, locals – instead of Washington bureaucrats -- could decide the best way to protect the land they love.

He said: “There's lots of opportunities to do things intelligently and responsibly and ethically and respectfully, and that's all we want to do.”

Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative was a local compromise that might have stopped the presidential declaration of Bears Ears. It included management strategies that locals had negotiated for years. Redd and Lyman were at the table. So was Josh Ewing, who leads the Bluff-based conservation group, Friends of Cedar Mesa. 

“It's great to have this pie in the sky idea of Congress protecting the area,” he said, “and that would be by far be the best way to do it.”

But the last congressional session ended before Bishop’s legislation received a House or Senate vote. 

“We always wanted that first, and we would still support Congress protecting this area,” Ewing added. “But, in this political environment, to imagine our congressional delegation putting together a bill that could get bipartisan support in Congress --that's just crazy talk. I mean, honestly.”

Providing bathrooms, building roads, securing archaeological sites – they’re just some of the items on a long to-do list for all public lands. But even these basic chores aren’t getting done at Bears Ears in part because the monument’s existence is in limbo.

“Every day we're not working on on-the-ground stewardship of this resource and we're fighting the politics,” said Ewing, “the landscape continues to be the collateral damage of the politics.”

Those protections are stalled no matter what the Trump administration decides to call Bears Ears -- a national monument or something else. And that leaves a great source of local pride at risk indefinitely.

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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