Differing views of a landscape: The Bears Ears battleground attracts a record crowd at a meeting in Bluff

A July 16 listening session in Bluff, Utah, with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell brought together two factions with diametrically opposed views on public lands management.

One group supports the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, introduced by U.S. representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz of Utah two days before Jewell arrived in San Juan County. Under that act, the area around Bears Ears would become a national conservation area with two separate parts.

The other group prefers a national monument proposal put forth by the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah Ute tribes as the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

The highly publicized meeting attracted an estimated 1,400 concerned citizens representing diverse interests.

The two sides met inside and outside the Bluff Community Center, turning it into a battleground for the secretary’s attention. Rows of brightly colored, handmade signs depicting clashing sentiments about the fate of Bears Ears were crammed onto fences and posts.

Dueling T-shirts were everywhere: brown ones representing monument opposition forces, blue ones indicating monument supporters. Zuni dancers, Navajo fry-bread stands, native cowboys on horseback, archaeologists, local tour guides and recreationalists sported the well-known Diné Bikeyah Bears Ears icon printed on a sky-blue shirt that said, “Protect Bears Ears. Hopi, Dine, Ute, Zuni.” The opposition shirts included the Navajo word “Dooda,” meaning “absolutely not.”

A long line snaked across an open field onto a dirt residential road and up toward a nearby rock face as people tried get one of the 500 seats inside the hall, or in the 400-seat overflow tent equipped with audio broadcast and coolers of bottled water.

Many entered the “lottery” for a chance to voice their opinions directly, while others filled out comment cards.

Early in the day it was clear that record numbers would attend. The session began at 1 p.m., but at 10:30 a.m., when the doors opened, all seats filled within minutes. The overflow tent filled just as quickly, while the last folks in line settled in side by side, elbow to elbow along the speckled patches of shade found under the sparse trees at the sides of adjoining roads to wait in 104-degree temperatures three hours more for Jewell to arrive.

States’ rights

The meeting took place mid-point in Jewell’s four-day tour of the rural southeastern Utah landscape, where she met with various communities and organizations and hiked with guides to rockart sites in Bears Ears to view damage caused by looters.

Later in July, she visited Grand Canyon National Park, leading to speculation that President Obama may also be considering creating the Greater Grand Canyon National Monument adjoining the park. Conservationists have called for a monument to protect the canyon’s views and watershed from uranium development and other threats.

But in much of Utah, the idea of any President’s being able to create a monument with a stroke of a pen, as Bill Clinton did in 1996 when he protected the Grand Staircase-Escalante area west of San Juan County, inflames residents.

Utah is the hub of a faction that seeks to gain control over federal public lands. Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory (R., District 47), a strong supporter of states’ rights, sponsored HB 148, the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act, in 2012. It demands that the federal government turn federal lands back to the state of Utah.

The legislature passed the bill and Gov. Gary Herbert signed it, stating that it “is only the first step in a long process, but it is a step we must take.”

The St. George News quoted U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a supporter of the bill: “Utahns can manage the lands in our state far better than any bureaucrat in Washington ever could.”

All three San Juan County commissioners are at the forefront of the anti-monument, anti-federal-lands movement. It has grown to include nearly all Utah elected officials – state, local and national – and a handful of Navajo supporters from Aneth Chapter in San Juan County. Aneth is the single chapter of seven Utah Navajo Nation chapters to rescind its support of the Inter-tribal Coalition’s national-monument proposal.

San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, elected in 2014, represents the 97 percent Navajo district located in the heart of the Aneth oil and gas field, where Resolute Oil, Navajo Nation Oil and Gas, and other energy companies create local job opportunities when the economy is thriving.

Benally even joined the opposition in loudly booing Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye during his public comments before Jewell in support of the Inter- tribal Coalition’s monument proposal.

By and large, however, tempers stayed under control, though the anti-monument forces did a lot of booing.

The only major outbreak by the pro-monument faction was a burst of sardonic laughter and boos when San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams spoke about his Mormon ancestors’ arrival in Utah as pioneers. “Nobody had really settled here before,” he said.


Archaeology Southwest President and CEO Bill Doelle waited patiently in the hall prior to Jewell’s arrival, hoping his name would be drawn in the lottery. (It wasn’t.) He was prepared to represent the 1,300 members of his group, a Tucson- based nonprofit dedicated to protecting archaeological sites in the American Southwest and Mexican Northwest.


anti-monument signs in Bluff on July 16. Photo by Gail Binkly.

“The ongoing looting, grave robbing and vandalism in the Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears region has insulted Native American spirituality, marred the scientific record, and erased American history,” Doelle said later online. “In June 2016, more than 700 archaeologists signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to designate a Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, to use his authority to do so in order to protect historic landmarks, archaeological sites, and other objects of historic or scientific interest on lands owned or controlled by the federal government… to accomplish conservation goals in the public interest.”

At the Bluff session Doelle told the Free Press he valued the presence of diverse people with strong connections to the lands.

He also observed that it seemed impossible to tell if anyone on the dais agreed or disagreed with any speaker. (In addition to Jewell, officials were BLM Director Neil Kornze, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Roberts, Undersecretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie, and U.S. Forest Service Associate Chief Dan Jirón.) “The federal team up front at the dais listened carefully to everyone. Jewell was actually taking notes on every speaker. Every opinion was valued.

“The process was very well organized, but it distressed me to listen to so much misinformation about the restrictions people believe the monument will bring, especially to native people.”

It is a matter, he said, of reading the coalition’s proposal, which offers protection of traditional native uses such as collecting firewood.

President Obama has created six national monuments with ties to tribes and native practices. As in the Rio Grande Del Norte monument, designated in 2013 in New Mexico, each contains a management guarantee that assures tribal access consistent with the 1996 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which states that nothing will enlarge or diminish the rights of any Indian tribe or pueblo.

At Rio Grande an additional clause in the monument proclamation pledged, “Nothing in this proclamation shall be construed to preclude the traditional collection of firewood and piñon nuts in the monument for personal non-commercial use consistent with the purposes of this proclamation.”

“The Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition is unique,” Doelle said. “It has never happened before that tribal leaders collaborate and request co-management of any federal land off-reservation.”

The monument proposal is posted on the coalition’s website. “The NCA [designation] supported by the congressional delegation [in the PLI] has been a much more closed process,” Doelle said.

‘The first to stop them’

Ron Eberling, who lived in Southwest Colorado for 30 years before moving to Blanding, stood in the community hall with the people wearing brown “Dooda Monument” shirts.

“I got involved with the Safari Club, four-wheeling and guiding people in the area in order to show them the beauty of the land,” he said. “I show them how to appreciate the land without destructive behavior. I know people come here mostly from Colorado and they are often the ones looking to get inside the ruins.

“Why do they want us out of there? It upsets me that they want us out of there,” Eberling said. “They accuse us of destroying the Native American ruins when, in fact, if we see someone doing that we’d be the first to stop them. I practice being a good host, a good neighbor and also work on search and rescue, and I sure would never harm my own back yard.”

From August 2016. Read similar stories about , .