The call by a coalition of five American Indian tribes for a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument is opposed by the commissioners of San Juan County, Utah, where the monument would be, as well as many others in the huge county in Southeast Utah.
“From my standpoint it is contrary to our county responsibilities, to lobby to impose federal restrictions on the county diminishing our ability to take care of the health, safety and welfare of our citizens,” said San Juan County District 2 Commissioner Phil Lyman in a telephone interview.
“We [the commission] don’t oppose their notion of a national monument,” Lyman said, but added that citizens are better served by local government working from a ground-based approach, rather than “special interests working to influence Washington DC to take unilateral actions.”
“I would promote the Navajo dispensation of the land. They can go straight to the federal government – government to government – they have a right as a sovereign nation to get the designation done.
“But our community should not be castigated just because we are opposed to something. It’s even difficult for me to believe in the legislative congressional track. I believe in the chain of command, the authority of local governance. We have supported an earnest set of priorities that represent the citizens of the county. We don’t feel adversarial. Our objective is to do the right thing.”
On Aug. 4, after five years of work, the commissioners of San Juan County voted unanimously to endorse a plan for managing public lands in the vast county.
The plan, called Alternative 4, was developed by the San Juan Citizens Lands Council, a group of about a dozen citizens representing diverse interests in the county. The council adopted Alternative 4 on June 15 after deliberating for 18 months on the best way to combine energy extraction, tourism, recreation, farming and ranching, conservation and wildlife, and cultural and archaeological issues into one tidy million-acre package containing wilderness, wilderness study areas, national conservation areas, and multiple-use lands. During that time they convened 22 work sessions and held six public meetings.
The push to come up with the plan came from the Utah Public Lands Initiative, a project designed by Utah Representatives Rob Bishop (R-District 1) and Jason Chaffetz (R-District 3) to put prickly decisions about public land use and management into the hands of local people and their representatives in eight of the state’s eastern counties.
Each county was asked to merge the needs of different stakeholders and develop a recommended land-use plan. The final proposals from all eight counties are to be taken into consideration by the congressional delegation as they craft a Utah Public Lands Bill destined to be introduced by Bishop and Chaffetz.
It was hoped that passing such a sweeping bill would resolve decadeslong issues about public-lands management and also dissuade President Obama from using his executive power to simply declare one or more national monuments in the areas under consideration.
But the process brought to light a lingering dispute between the San Juan County Lands Council and the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a grassroots Utah Navajo organization, which developed a proposal that would designate 1.9 million acres of public lands as Bears Ears National Conservation Area / National Monument. From the beginning the Navajo, Ute and San Juan Paiute tribes, which together constitute more than 50 percent of the population of San Juan County, have been a major player in the initiative, requesting inclusion in the considerations of the lands council, the county commissioners and the public lands initiative.
Diné Bikéyah charges that the proposal they drafted was not adequately presented to the public or seriously considered during the county process, and as a result, the county-supported proposal ignores the Native American point of view.
A last effort to resolve the dispute was made in four attempts through negotiating meetings in March, April, and May. It failed.
In a letter sent July 9 to Chaffetz’s office, Diné Bikéyah stated, “It has been more than three years since the Navajo submitted its proposal and we have never seen a response from the County nor had a meaningful negotiation to understand how far apart these proposals are. The past four attempts at negotiating an agreement have not produced anything of substance that we are aware. At the most recent meeting neither UDB nor the Tribes were invited to attend and we were told that the SJC Commissioners did not require any further information from us to make its final decision…”
Leonard Lee, a founding member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, told the Free Press, “We arrived about 1400. There have been lots of Native Americans crisscrossing the land here before and after we arrived with no restrictions on our activities, herb gathering, wood fuel, ceremonial and more. Right now, [with the restrictions placed upon the land use by federal and state regulations] in their eyes we are just common criminals. For the longest time we have not had a share in the management – federal, state or local government.”
A mix of tribes
Tribal affiliation in the group included board members from White Mesa, members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, located on 2 percent of the county’s land near Blanding. The board make-up is entirely Native, drawing members from residents and leaders living in one quarter of the sprawling, canyon-riddled land that is Navajo reservation along the San Juan River.
Paiute lands north of the Arizona border and south of the San Juan River in Utah were proclaimed in 1907 as the Paiute Strip Reservation and later integrated into the Utah Navajo lands. Today the 300 enrolled members of the San Juan Paiute Tribe and their 100 children are settled in 5,400 acres at Naatsis’áán (Navajo Mountain) Cow Springs, Hidden Springs and White Mesa.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Native Americans in the county in 2010 was 50.4 percent of the total 15,251 residents. The county is divided into three districts. Only one, District 3, which is 98 percent Native, is represented on the commission by a Native —Rebecca Benally, Diné, from Aneth Chapter.
The San Juan County commission and many citizens are frustrated by the amount of non-taxable land owned by the federal government, the state of Utah, and the State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). According to the county promotional pamphlet, the 2011 Guide for Decision Makers, “only 40,000 of the county’s 5 million acres are subject to local property tax.”
There are seven national monuments in Utah and five national parks. Four of the parks started out as national monuments. Residents still cringe at President Bill Clinton’s use of the Antiquities Act to designate Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southwestern Utah in 1996. Some residents feel they are overburdened with public land today.
In July, President Obama designated three new national monuments in Texas, Nevada and California. The news was not taken lightly by Congressman Bishop, who at the time was working on a measure in Congress, H.B. 2258, to thwart designations of national monuments in western U.S. counties where such presidential actions are considered probable.
Bishop stated that the national monuments were declared “without input from the people…The people in the counties that are designated in this amendment need to have the right to have some input in how land decisions are used in that area. This is what this amendment does. It gives them the chance to be heard, because under the present Antiquities Act, they are not heard.”
On July 8 the House approved the amendment, which would forbid spending money to designate national monuments in 17 counties within Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. The three counties in Utah – Kane, Garfield and Wayne – are all directly west of San Juan County, which was not included in the amendment. Utah Sen. Mike Lee introduced the legislation in the Senate on Aug. 6, where it was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
As work on the final lands-council proposal progressed, information became public that Utah Diné Bikéyah had convened a coalition with support from over 24 tribes that intended to present a monument proposal directly to President Obama. Locals moved quickly to block the Bears Ears plan. In addition to supporting Alternative 4, the commission passed a separate resolution opposing the creation of a national monument within the county.
The Utah congressional delegation sent a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell advising against the Bears Ears proposal. The letter stated that “Regretfully, yesterday’s progress [the county’s choice of Alternative 4] could be undermined if a National Monument were to be designated in Utah. Earlier this week, Utah Governor Herbert sent a letter to President Obama expressing his opposition to his use of the Antiquities Act in Utah.”
The letter said that the delegation echoes “the sentiments expressed by Governor Herbert and San Juan County and oppose the use of the Antiquities Act in Utah. Local support does not exist and doing so would be detrimental to the larger PLI process.”
But as the Diné Bikéyah proposal gained eminence among Utah’s Native people it drew support from tribes beyond Utah boundaries. Five tribes with historical ties to the 1.9-million-acre land base formally organized as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. On Oct. 15 representatives of the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe held a press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing their support for a national monument.
Six of seven Utah Navajo chapters passed resolutions in support of the proposal. Only one, Aneth, Benally’s home chapter, voted not to support it.
There have been references in media coverage to petitions signed by 300 Utah Navajo people opposing the proposition. The Free Press asked Benally multiple times for the petition and documentation of the 300 dissenters, but she declined to be interviewed.
Fred Ferguson, chief of staff for Chaffetz, did furnish the Free Press with a copy of a hand-written petition sent to their offices in Salt Lake City. It is dated July 28 and signed by 52 people in support of the Lands Council Alternative B, one of three options offered for comment during public meetings of the Lands Council during the past year. A second sheet with 49 undated signatures accompanied the first but was not attached to a description. There were no statements on any of the papers referencing Diné Bikéyah Bears Ears or Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
But Lyman explained that “Commissioner Benally has heard strong opposition to the Bears Ears plan in person. I have read the reference [to the petition] in media, but I’ve never seen it.”
Still, some local residents – Native American and other – do have concerns about how a national-monument designation might affect their use of land for everything from wood-gathering to recreational ATV-driving.
Julie Binali, Diné, lives in Halchita, part of the Mexican Water Chapter. In a phone interview she said she has not been able to get clear information about the restrictions she imagines could curtail her traditional activities. “None of us Natives will be allowed up there,” she said, but added she hasn’t attended any meetings about Bears Ears.
A recent Navajo Nation Council press release weighed in on the conflicting allegations: “Despite opposition from a small handful of individuals in San Juan County, Bears Ears support from the Navajo Nation has remained united and strong. The proposal has also been formally endorsed by nearly 300 tribes through resolutions, and is supported by a resolution from the National Congress of American Indians.”
On March 12, the Navajo Nation Council’s Naabik’iyátí’ Committee, made up of the entire delegate body representing all chapters, unanimously passed a resolution in “support of the federal designation of Bears Ears — ancestral home of many Southwestern tribes.”
Council Delegate Davis Filfred, who represents five chapters in Utah (Mexican Water, Aneth, Teecnospos, Tóikan and Red Mesa) said the statements alleging non-support of the inter-tribal proposal are unfounded and misleading.
“Seemingly false statements are being made to the media that the Bears Ears proposal is not supported by local chapters and local people,” said Filfred. “This is not accurate. There has been, and continues to be, support from six of seven Utah chapters and the overwhelming support of local Navajo people for the Bears Ears proposal.”
Naa’tsis’Áán and Oljeto, both in Utah Navajo, are two of five chapters represented by Delegate Herman Daniels, Jr. “Some officials are misinforming the public by stating that the proposal is not supported at the local level and this could not be further from the truth,” said Daniels.
According to Ferguson, Chaffetz’s office has been committed to tribal input and involvement since the PLI began. “The Inter-Tribal Coalition was only formed over the summer of 2015,” Ferguson said. “[Since then] Rep. Chaffetz has flown to Arizona with a delegation of Utah officials to discuss PLI with Navajo Nation President Begaye and his senior staff.”
At the Aug 18 meeting, Chaffetz sought tribal input and committed to working together. It was a very productive meeting, said Ferguson.
Also, Begaye and Chaffetz have met in Washington, D.C. “Since Aug. 5,” Ferguson said, “I have requested multiple meetings with Inter-Tribal Coalition staff. Not until [Oct. 23] have I received a response expressing their willingness to meet. I was pleased to read in yesterday’s email that the coalition would like to engage in the legislative process. As was stated in a letter from Representative Chaffetz to President Begaye, we are skeptical co-management can be achieved via the Antiquities Act. So we strongly hope the coalition will work within the PLI process to establish land designations and co-management terms that can be supported widely and implemented in a meaningful way.”