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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Committee Considers Plans For Bears Ears, But Opponents Hope They Will Be Invalidated Soon

Sandstone structures in Valley of the Gods part of the Bears Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat Utah
Don Miller
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Valley of the Gods was included in the original boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument. Monument proponents are hoping those boundaries are restored soon.

An advisory committee made up of San Juan County residents met Friday for the third time to discuss the management of Bears Ears National Monument. But the plans they're making could be thrown out if Democrat Joe Biden wins the election or a federal judge rules against the Trump Administration's 2017 reduction of Bears Ears.

The 15-member committee first met in June 2019 after a controversial nomination process in which monument supporters claim their nominees were passed over in favor of those who opposed the designation of the monument in 2016 by then-president Barack Obama.

The coalition of tribes that pushed for the monument’s creation, known as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, has also opposed the committee for being majority non-Native.

The committee’s two Native members were in attendance at its latest meeting on Oct. 16, and the group focused primarily on recreation planning. Members heard presentations from Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service staff and discussed which cultural sites should be prioritized for development and which should be left alone.

The committee also considered whether to allow dispersed camping in certain areas, where to develop new campgrounds and whether to require permits to access the entire monument versus specific sites.

“We don’t want to turn it into a circus, but we do want to offer a range of experiences for visitors to tap into,” said BLM Canyon Country district manager Gary Torres.

Ultimately, there were not enough committee members in attendance for the group to make any formal recommendations, partially because five of its 15 seats are open, following the expiration of those members’ terms.

Monument manager Jake Palma said the nominees for those seats have to be approved by the Secretary of the Interior and are still being vetted. Palma also announced that five more seats will be expiring soon and the BLM is currently taking nominations for their replacements.

The BLM said the committee’s recommendations in its first meeting helped guide the formation of the overall monument management plan, released in February 2020, and its recommendations in subsequent meetings are meant to help guide further planning for the monument, which include the creation of plans for travel, recreation and cultural resources.

The BLM has not yet started on those plans, according to Kamran Zafar, an attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust. He said the BLM chose his conservation non-profit to consult on those plans, along with the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe who are automatic consulting parties under federal law.

Those five tribes formed the Inter-Tribal Coalition, and have so far refused to participate in the planning process, according to Keala Carter, the group’s lead advocate. She said that they are waiting for the results of the lawsuit they brought against the Trump administration’s 2017 reduction of the monument’s boundaries and view the planning process underway now as preemptive and illegal.

“The [Monument Advisory Committee’s] participation is a seemingly superficial check-off that is not the same thing as what the Bears Ears Commission was designed to do,” she said, referring to the group of five tribal leaders who were supposed to help manage the monument under Obama’s proclamation.

Carter said the Inter-Tribal Coalition has undertaken its own management planning process in anticipation of a restoration of the monument’s original boundaries and expects to have that finished by the summer of 2021.

She said that plan could come into play if their lawsuit against the Trump administration is decided in favor of the tribes, or if Biden wins the presidential election and expands the monument’s boundaries.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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