Down to the wire: San Juan County is still in discussions over public-lands recommendations


Leonard Lee, a member of Diné Bikéyah, talks with Nick Sandberg, San Juan County planner at the first April negotiating meeting held in Blanding, Utah. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

A request for proposals regarding public-lands management from eastern Utah counties, to be included in Utah Rep. Rob Bishop’s Utah Public Lands Initiative, has stalled in San Juan County.

Two meetings held with stakeholders in April yielded little movement from any of the groups involved with proposals on the table for review by the county commissioners.

In her opening remarks at the first meeting, Commissioner Rebecca Benally focused on job creation in the county and her “prayers that people will come together in one mind, one heart and make the decision in the best interest of the people, for the San Juan County residents. … The county proposal will not be a Diné Bikéyah proposal, Lands Council or commissioner proposal. It is the people’s proposal, the citizens’ proposal.”

Two proposal maps were on display at the meetings. An additional, new “energy-zone map,” which designated a large tract of land east of Highway 191 as suitable for mining and energy extraction, joined a proposal submitted by the grassroots San Juan County Lands Council and the Diné Bikéyah’s Bears Ears National Conservation Area/National Monument proposal. (All can be viewed on the San Juan County website.)

The proposal from the San Juan County Lands Council, named Plan B, would designate 590,000 acres of wilderness and 522,000 acres as a national conservation area, within which individual canyons and mesas are identified in acreage increments. The heart of Cedar Mesa – a plateau rich in archaeological sites – is described as 489,762 acres NCA and 230,106 acres of wilderness.

The Utah Diné Bikéyah map, now renamed Bears Ears, lists 1.9 million acres of NCA/national monument and includes 259,000 acres of wilderness inside the NCA designation.

Native tribes and pueblos and conservation groups are advocating stronger protections for cultural, archaeological, ceremonial and sacred sites, with practices such as the gathering of herbs and firewood protected.

The county lands council wants protection for certain areas, but wants to retain the opportunity for plenty of energy development, land exchanges, consolidation and enhanced local management of the Mormon Pioneer Hole in the Rock Trail.

Both groups seek an increased role in management.

It was clear at the April meetings that only these two proposed designation maps propped on easels beside the energy-zone map were being considered for the county plan that is to be submitted to the congressional delegation for inclusion in the Utah Public Lands Initiative package scheduled to be sent to sent to Congress later this year.

At the meetings, stakeholders aired concern over mining and income-producing land designations and the amount of time the proposals have taken, as well as the need to settle matters as quickly as possible.

Heidi Redd, a member of the lands council, explained in the first meeting that the county “definitely can’t run on air.” She continued, “The county cannot operate without mining, tourism and agriculture,” she said. “We must have some [designations] for mining interests and we have to speed up the [bureaucratic] mining process. The NCA will take a couple of years and in the meantime mining can take place in some of the NCA land.”

County planner Nick Sandberg added, “I don’t think the county will support 1.9 million acres of NCA. The commission has got to consider all the residents. Let’s say they are interested in some other kind of designation outside of a core NCA.”

Utah Diné Bikéyah member and former county commissioner Mark Maryboy said it was time to “cut to the chase. … We’ve been working for five years on this plan. Time is of the essence. We’ve done our work, mapped our proposal. We know ours. We know yours. If you want to shrink that, then do that and it will begin a real discussion.”

“Our proposal is just that,” said Diné Bikéyah Chairman Willie Grayeyes. “The language is in our proposal and with that [language] how to work toward protecting the area. As far as the planning, there has to be a concrete plan before we use up all our natural resources, before they are gone for further generations. There are other options for economic development. We must keep the land as close to pristine as it is now.”

From the audience, Terry Knight of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe asked, “Are we going to make this thing happen? If we don’t, it’ll be too late. I have watched, listened and learned. We have to work with San Juan County to get this thing done. We’ve got smart people here, good energy and if we don’t come up with a plan then somebody’s going to come in and move us out of the way. It’s a ‘we’ thing, not an ‘I’ thing.”

Knight held up a piece of paper featuring a printed management plan, surprising most people from the lands council and the county government who said they had never seen the plan even though it outlined the management of the Bears Ears NCA, defining “Native American Engagement” with recommended legislative language.

It called for explicit recognition of the ancestral and contemporary importance of the Greater Bears Ears NCA, the unique, intact archaeological record found throughout, and the American tribes’ and pueblos’ deep connection and commitment to the lands.

The management plan stated it must integrate available traditional ecological knowledge in close consultation with the tribes and pueblos.

The outline also describes specific ways and means of accomplishing these requests, including an NCA tribal advisory council guaranteeing seats for tribal and pueblo representatives as well as the creation of a cooperating relationship that provides a formal framework for governmental units to engage in active collaboration with federal agencies such as those responsible for the Bears Ears area.

There was little budging from the parties’ positions. Although everyone agreed to meet again 10 days after the first meeting, the same concerns surfaced and nothing changed. “Someone even suggested that no more meetings would be scheduled,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, who attended both meetings.

According to a recent update posted at the Diné Bikéyah site, the group was told “by San Juan Commissioners on April 20 that we have their support for advancing the Bears Ears National Conservation Area and Collaborative Management by Tribes in the southwest, but they also indicated they will advance the final proposal without additional input from us, or other Tribes who were not in the room.”

In a phone conversation, Commissioner Benally told the Free Press, “We continue to try and work together. I do not know when the next meeting will be, but the one thing I understand about all the proposals is that we agree on the necessity to preserve the ‘heart of Cedar Mesa.’”

Only eight weeks ago many standalone proposals were listed on the San Juan County website, from a variety of different groups and interests. Now there are only two plus the energy-zone map.

In mid-April a meeting of 50-60 people included 45 inter-tribal representatives from five of 24 tribes and pueblos including the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai, Ute Mountain Ute, and 20 Pueblo nations of New Mexico. They were joined by five not-for-profit conservation groups at the gathering in Bluff, under the name of the Protect Bears Ears Co alition. The group’s website says they seeking “permanent protection in the form of a National Conservation Area (or National Monument, if necessary) for one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth.”

The weekend event provided an opportunity to discuss the Native American- led effort to protect the greater Cedar Mesa area.

Dan Simplicio, a member of the Zuni Pueblo and a Crow Canyon Archaeological Center cultural specialist, said the welcome was, “extremely gracious, especially, and unexpectedly, from the Utah Navajo people. Mark Maryboy thanked us all for coming and told us they were so glad we have come home. ‘We’ve been taking care of the land while you were away.’

“That has never been said to us before and represented a great beginning to strong relationships in the coalition, a new consensus-building. That was very moving. If this coalition of native tribes and pueblos can do this for Bears Ears then we hope that Window Rock [Navajo central government] can do it too.”

The group made field trips to sites such as Arch Canyon, Butler Wash, Mule Canyon, River House Ruin, and of course, the Bears Ears themselves.

In a video posted on the Friends of Cedar Mesa website, Malcolm Lehi, Ute Mountain Ute, says “hearing the other tribes is very interesting and it brings a better perspective.”

Grand Canyon Trust Native American Program Manager Natasha Hale told the Free Press it was a “strong meeting. It brought together cultural leaders, tribal leaders, people who are part of the cultural resource teams with the tribes. It was evident that everyone is working to protect this land and establish a timeframe and structure. There are many pieces to the puzzle, a lot of moving parts in the proposal.”

She noted that tribes and pueblos have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, which is different than the not-for-profits.

“There are some issues to be worked out between the conservancy groups and the pueblos and tribes,” explained Simplicio. “At the meeting we immediately got into what was important to each of our tribes and pueblos.”

The coalition meeting met with positive responses from attendees. “If the tribes and pueblos are successful in the proposal with the coalition of conservancy groups,” added Hale, “it will set the platform for other protection issues outside of reservation land.”

Official inter-tribal support is growing for the Bears Ears proposal. The Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the Hopi Tribe have passed legislation addressing the proposal and written letters giving their position on Bears Ears to the Utah congressional delegation and President Obama. The legislation can be found at the Protect Bears Ears Coalition site online.

In addition to Utah Diné Bikéyah (in partnership with the Navajo Nation), five conservation groups have signed on in support of the coalition: Conservation Lands Foundation, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Grand Canyon Trust, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mark Varien, executive vice president of research at Crow Canyon, said, “The sites on the greater Cedar Mesa area are among the most important archaeological resources in the world right now. They contain the best-preserved sites, the most amazing art work in the world, and they are the most unprotected. Preservation of those is our primary interest in being part of Bears Ears Coalition.

“But also the research potential there can yield very important insights not only to pueblo culture, but other tribes, Navajo and Ute and of course the Mormon pioneers. All of that will help us understand what governs how cultures form and change.”

From May 2015. Read similar stories about .