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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.

A Bill To Create A Visitor Center For Bears Ears Is Gaining Support, But Tribes Have Yet To Sign On

Bears Ears as Seen From Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
T Schofield
The Bears Ears buttes are located in the Shash Jaa unit of Bears Ears National Monument. Former-president Donald Trump broke the monument into two units when he reduced its size from 1.35 million to 202,000 acres in 2017.

A bipartisan bill to help build a visitor center at Bears Ears National Monument is sailing through the Utah Legislature and gaining support with pro-monument groups. It passed a Senate committee unanimously on Tuesday and moved on to the full chamber.

The bill would create a committee to design a visitor center for the monument.It would include a representative from each of the five tribes with ancestral ties to Bears Ears, as well as three members of the Utah Legislature. Only the tribal representatives would be voting members.

“It’s an invitation to the tribes to support [them to] make those decisions,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Salt Lake City. “Then the hope is we can all get together with federal stakeholders and get it built.”

Owens is co-sponsoring the legislation with Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. The two have presented themselves as an “odd couple” in committee and floor hearings for the bill, since Owens supports full restoration of the monument, while Lyman has opposed the monument since it was created in 2016.

Owens said he asked Lyman to work with him on the bill because a visitor’s center could bring benefits to Lyman’s district.

“It could be good for tribes, it could be good for the economy in the area, it could be good for visitors,” Owens said. “Even if you wanted smaller boundaries on the monument, you could be for this idea.”

Lyman embraced the bill and has helped Owens get it through the Utah Legislature.

It passed the House 62-10 last week, and Owens said he expects it to pass the full Senate this week.The bill includes money to cover the committee’s meeting expenses and Lyman filed a $250,000 appropriations request to allow the committee to hire a consultant.

The two have also been working to get pro-monument groups on board with the bill.

They visited San Juan County together at the end of February to present it to the board of Utah Diné Bikeyah, a Navajo-led nonprofit. Many of the board members live on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County.

“[The representatives] were very reserved and respectful in talking about the composition of the body,” said Woody Lee, the group’s director. “They didn’t want to go telling the committee what to do.”

Lee said his group’s board has not formally voted to support the monument, but he expects they will vote to do so at a meeting on Wednesday. He said the two lawmakers made a good case for the center at the meeting as an economic driver.

“The unemployment has been spiking in the southern portion of [San Juan County],” he said. “This would really help the workforce and the related businesses that can profit off of this.”

Friends of Cedar Mesa, a non-profit group that supports the restoration of the monument, also backs the bill. The group currently runs a visitor center for the monument, which opened in 2018.

“We've always envisioned our grassroots visitor center giving way to a more robust and tribally-led effort,” said Sarah Burak, the Bears Ears Education Center manager. “So while we know this may be some years away, we look forward to supporting those efforts.”

The tribes named in the bill have been relatively silent on the proposition. They are represented by the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, which is composed of members from each of the five tribes named in the original monument proclamation and Owens’ bill.

The group’s executive director, Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, said the coalition is currently developing its own “analysis and evaluation of a potential native visitor center for Bears Ears.” He said that effort could be compatible with the committee proposed in Owen’s bill, but the coalition has decided to remain neutral on the legislation.

Full tribal participation is essential for his bill to work, Owens said. If each tribe does not nominate a representative to be part of it, the committee won’t exist.

“It gets a heartbeat when they decide they want to do it,” he said. “We’re not trying to force anything.”

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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