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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.

Latest Bears Ears Planning Meeting Convenes Without Indigenous Voices

an ancient stone structure nestled inside a red rock cliff
Kate Groetzinger
House on Fire is an ancestral Puebloan ruin located on Cedar Mesa. It is one of the most-visited sites in Bears Ears National Monument, according to BLM officials.

MONTICELLO — Planning for the shrunken Bears Ears National Monument is moving forward, despite protests from the tribes involved in the monument’s designation. 

Charged with making recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management, the Monument Advisory Committee met over two days this week to discuss recreation in Bears Ears. But the committee’s homogenous makeup raised questions about who the BLM is listening to as it proceeds with plans for the monument. 

The group, which consists of 15 stakeholders, was appointed last year by the Trump Administration, withinput from the BLM, Forest Service and Gov. Gary Herbert. It includes two Navajo members, neither of whom was present at the meeting this week. One, Ryan Benally, cited a work conflict; KUER couldn’t reach the other, Alfred Ben, for comment. 

“Am I the only Indigenous person in the room right now?” asked Angelo Baca, a Navajo and Hopi resident of San Juan County and member of Utah Diné Bikeyah who attended the meeting as an observer. “That’s unacceptable.” 

Concerns about the lack of Indigenous representation on the committee and in the management planning process surfaced throughout the meetings. Committee members also discussed appropriate concepts to include in educational messaging about the monument, planning for signage and development at cultural sites designated for public use in the monument management plan released last month.

The BLM presented various themes to the committee, including cultural landscapes, responsible use and stewardship and science and research. After some discussion of pioneers and cattle ranchers, Bruce Adams, the committee chairman and a San Juan County commissioner, suggested a new theme. 

“I’m going to offend somebody, but there needs to be a theme up there just titled 'Tough Guys,'" Adams said, mentioning early pioneers by name. “There’s a mountain of stories about people like that that permeate this county.” 

The committee did not come to a consensus on the topic, but did pass motions on cultural sites. They recommended developing parking and more signage to make it easier to find an ancestral Puebloan ruin called House on Fire, which the BLM listed as a potential “public use site” in the recently-approved monument management plan. The committee asked the BLM not to develop or promote the hike to Shay Canyon, which contains petroglyph panels, after hearing from conservationists in public comment. 

“There are a couple of sites that are wildly inappropriate to encourage people to visit,” said Tim Peterson, Cultural Landscapes program director at Grand Canyon Trust. “Shay Canyon is one of them.” 

He added that the monument is not supposed to be a “recreation monument,” citing former President Barack Obama’s monument designation, which calls for collaborative management and knowledge-sharing between the federal and tribal governments.

One way to increase Indigenous involvement in the planning process, Peterson said, is to appoint new Native American members to the Monument Advisory Committee. Five seats are set to expire in April, at which point the Trump Administration will fill them through an appointment process.

The BLM said it plans to seek Indigenous input in other ways, too. One avenue is the Shash Jaa Commission, which includes the five tribes involved in the monument designation. Since the monument reduction, the commission has refused to participate in consultation with the BLM, citing the ongoing legal battle over Trump’s reduction of the monument. 

In an interview with KUER, Gary Torres, acting BLM Eastern States director, expressed frustration over the perception that the BLM is not engaging with tribes, adding “we have been to dozens of meetings with tribal representatives and invited them at every point along this path.

“I think when people make that criticism — ‘Oh, the tribes haven’t been involved’ — That’s not true,” he said. “We’ve made efforts. We can’t force people to come to the table.” 

But Jake Palma, who recently came on as the Bears Ears monument manager, said he will seek Indigenous input on an unofficial level. He said his team will visit tribal elders and elected officials in order to rebuild trust with them. 

“We’ll do whatever we can to get engagement and input from tribal partners,” he said.

Correction 2/28/20 6:10 p.m. MT This story was corrected to show that the BLM expressed frustration over the perception that the agency is not engaging with tribes.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

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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