PLI legislation is introduced at last: Supporters say it’s the right solution; critics, that it’s too little, too late

Just prior to Interior Secretary Sally’s Jewell’s July 16 listening session in Bluff, Utah, about a possible Bears Ears National Monument, U.S. representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both Utah Republicans, introduced the long-awaited final Public Lands Initiative bill.

Among many other things, the sweeping legislation offers a management alternative for the Bears Ears area, which surrounds the recognizable twin bluffs north of Cedar Mesa, near Natural Bridges National Monument.

Until July 14, only discussion drafts of the bill had been made public though the counter proposal, the Bears Ears Inter- Tribal Coalition’s national-monument plan, has been floated since late 2015. The monument proposal recommends that the ancestral area, rich with cultural sites and a significant indigenous archeological record spanning thousands of years, be deemed a 1.9-million-acre national monument. In a key provision, five tribes closely tied to the area – the Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and Uintah Ute tribes – would share management with the federal government.

But Bishop and Chaffetz have offered up a land-management bill much larger in geographical scope, gleaned from input of local stakeholders in seven eastern Utah counties, including San Juan, where the Bears Ears landform is located. It required three years and 1,200 meetings with 120 groups for the congressional team to cobble together a plan governing the fate of 18 million federal acres in Utah’s eastern counties.

Rural communities are divided over whether designations should allow motorized vehicles, energy extraction and grazing activity that could diminish the cultural resources and natural beauty as well as inhibit traditional native uses of the land, such as herb-collection, ceremonies, hunting and firewood-gathering.

Bishop and Chaffetz hope to see the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act passed before President Obama’s time of office expires, along with his authority through the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare national monuments. Bishop has said he plans to “fast-track” the legislation, but it would be an uphill battle to have it become law before 2017.

PLI revealed

The final PLI bill includes a number of changes from the draft version.

In addition to a 300,000-acre increase in conservation-oriented designations, the initiative adds 10,400 acres to what is called “new recreation and economic development,” bringing the total to 1.15 million acres. While the 360 miles of rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (including 23 miles of the Dolores River in Utah) increased by 55 miles, 311,000 acres were consolidated for SITLA land, 18,779 added in Arches National Park and a new Jurassic National Monument in Emery County was proposed for designation.

Included in the bill is a revamped 1.4-million-acre plan for the Bears Ears region, designating it a national conservation area and eliminating the tribal-comanagement idea. A complementary bill was introduced at the same time by the Bishop-Chaffetz team aimed at “ensuring land use certainty” by allowing new or expanded existing national monuments in the seven PLI counties only through an Act of Congress, prohibiting use of the Antiquities Act there. Passage of the bill could set the stage for similar actions in other Western states where roughly half of the land is managed by the federal government. (In Utah the total is 62 percent.)

“Utah is a public lands state. It has always been, and it always will be,” Bishop in a statement. “The question is how those public lands are managed. That’s where local government has the advantage. PLI takes that premise and builds it to a reality.”

But critics say the PLI bill is too generous to the energy and mineral extraction industries. In regards to the Bears Ears area in particular, the Inter-Tribal Coalition – five regional native tribes backed by an additional 26 tribes – has instead asked for a declaration by President Obama that would protect the estimated 100,000 archeological sites and their tribal sacred lands as a national monument.

The conflict has thrust Bears Ears into the front lines of a Western land war.

A deeper look

The PLI plan carves Bears Ears into two national conservation areas – the Indian Creek NCA, tailored for outdoor reaction and grazing, and the Bears Ears NCA, focused on tribal access and cultural-resource protection. Management of the Bears Ears NCA “elevates tribes,” according to the language in the PLI, to “cooperating agency” status with the Department of Interior, providing a government-to-government seat at the management table, while creating a tribal commission for advisory purposes, and the appointment of a tribal liaison to serve as the primary point of contact for tribes.

But conservation organizations see this as an inadequate approach. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance criticizes the plan because, according to a statement, it “fails to protect over half a million acres of the Bears Ears region; diminishes the Coalition’s voice in management of the reduced Bears Ears NCA by creating a ten-member advisory committee with only one tribal representative. It promotes motorized recreation in this region; allows grazing in currently closed areas like Grand Gulch, Fish, Owl, and Arch Canyons; and prohibits the agency from protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness.”

Tim Peterson, Utah Wildlands Program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, was present at the Bluff listening session. He says the PLI bills would diminish the voice of the sovereign tribes in management of the cultural landscape.

In a statement on the Trust website, Peterson explains that “the disappointing package of bills fails both the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and America’s birthright of wild and pristine public lands… encourage[ing] rampant development of dirty fossil fuels and uranium, forever prohibit[ing] sensible management of livestock grazing, and hands over public lands and public roads to the State of Utah to further the anti-public lands agenda.”

But others support the PLI proposal.

In a letter, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said they were proud to participate in the PLI process as one of the 120 partners.“We understand that when there are multiple stakeholders with diverse interests, the need for compromise is paramount… Given the complexity of the bill… designations that lock away lands from energy development should be minimized as oil and natural gas leaves a small and temporary impact on the land and coexists with other multiple uses of public lands such as recreation, ranching and protecting natural resource values. As we’ve learned from the shale revolution, industry is able to tap new resources … that we couldn’t develop just ten years ago.”

Uranium on the horizon

Robert Tohe, a citizen at the Bluff meeting, called attention to expansion plans for the Daneros Mine, a uranium project located in the heart of Bears Ears country. Daneros is in the Red Canyon in San Juan County. Fifteen miles of dusty Radium King Road snakes through canyons and washes until it meets State Highway 95. Some 23 miles later, after the uranium trucks turn toward Blanding and the White Mesa Mille, they pass Natural Bridges National Monument and Bears Ears. Many conservation groups and tribes are concerned that the area was left out of NCA protection in the PLI. It would instead remain under BLM management, and open to future energy development.

Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian company, holds 100-percent interest in various mining claims, including Daneros and adjoining historical mine sites which can be developed in conjunction with the Daneros project. The company also owns White Mesa Mill, located between Blanding and White Mesa, a Ute Mountain Ute hamlet in the county.

The White Mesa Mill is central to the highest-grade uranium mines and deposits in the U.S., according to the Energy Fuel website, and is the only fully-licensed and operating conventional uranium mill in the United States able to process more than 8 million pounds of uranium per year. In the company’s proposal to expand, they point out that although the mill is on stand-by at this time, it has “the ability to significantly boost uranium production as the expected uranium market recovery occurs.”

The plan has undergone a required Environmental Assessment evaluation, but according to Anne Mariah Tappe, an attorney and energy-program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, “although BLM requires an EA for mine expansions, this is a ten-fold expansion and should require an Environmental Impact Statement,” a much more thorough study.

Peterson said, “Daneros is excluded from the PLI’s NCA, and would remain regular BLM land, under their management, as would most of the uranium belt around Moss Back Butte and White/ Red Canyons,” just below Highway 95, 30 miles as the crow flies from the scenic Valley of the Gods. Early in 2016, Energy Fuels notified the BLM of its plan to expand operations at Daneros from 4.5 acres to 46 acres. They hope to add two new portals, install drainage-control structures, mine infrastructure, an office/shop complex and up to eight additional ventilation holes. Total ore production for the life of the mine would increase from 100,000 tons over seven years to 500,000 tons over 20 years, expanding the maximum ore production to 72,000 tons per year.

Air quality and possible downwind atmospheric contamination were listed among the many concerns identified in the public comments, but the biggest issue is calling for the BLM to require the Environmental Impact Statement.

In the summary of public comments, the agency responded, “The primary purpose of an EA is to briefly provide sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an EIS or a FONSI, Findings of No Significant Impact.” The public-comment period closed on Aug. 1.

Lights, action

Redhorse Corporation completed the EA in January 2016 concluding that mine operations will not adversely affect Natural Bridges National Monument.

Sarah Fields, director of Uranium Watch, a nonprofit based in Moab, Utah, said among many of her concerns about the mine expansion is the lack of oversight and follow-through by the BLM, which has just two rangers for the 1.8-million- acre Monticello Field Office area.

“Daneros is located in a steep canyon. Last year, for instance, a huge storm in late November created a big wash-out there. It wasn’t investigated until April because BLM doesn’t monitor that drainage,” Fields explained. “The longterm plan for care of the waste piles is an issue, too.” But she is apprehensive about another, subtler form of contamination that may impact the quietude and dark skies of the public lands nearby. “Bears Ears, like Natural Bridges and the Daneros mine, is off the grid, so electricity from generators [at the mine] will create sound emission. There will be lights there, too, at night and lots of trucks travelling the roads. All of this disturbance can travel downwind toward these pristine places.”

Even if the Inter-Tribal Coalition is successful in its bid to protect Bears Ears with the larger monument designation, “production at the existing mine will be grandfathered in,” Tappe explained. “That’s a given, but what it would do is require a much harder look at the expansion through an EIS and tribal weigh-in. There’s a huge legacy of contamination and too little cultural consultation with the tribes. It illustrates how the tribes should have more input in decision-making on ancestral lands such as Bears Ears.”

In a strategy letter sent to Secretary Jewell regarding plans for the PLI Act, the congressional delegation said they would convene a formal hearing during the latter half of August in which “all sides of the debate will be represented in order to better understand the best path forward for Bears Ears.” The group also intends to address the House Committee on Natural Resources in September.

But Lee Lonsberry, Bishop’s chief of staff, told the Free Press that the dates and locations could not yet be confirmed.


Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye addresses federal officials July 16 in Bluff, speaking in support of the Bears Ears National Monument proposal. Photo by Gail Binkly.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Lee, the Senate sponsor of the package of bills, scheduled a field hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Blanding, Utah, July 27. As promised, all sides were invited. But Mark Maryboy, a Navajo and board member of Utah Diné Bikeyah, the founding organization of the Inter-tribal Coalition, declined the invitation.

“These meetings have repeatedly proven uncomfortable for native leaders because of the levels of disrespect and disregard for traditional viewpoints,” stated the former San Juan County commissioner. “The intimidation tactics currently being used by Blanding residents against Native American supporters of a Bears Ears National Monument are astounding, as was on display on July 16th with the booing of Navajo Nation President Begaye by Commissioner Benally and her supporters.”

In a July 23 letter to Senator Lee, Maryboy also called attention to Commissioner Bruce Adams’ comment at the July 16 listening session that Mormons were the first people to settle San Juan County, calling the remark “offensive.” Maryboy added he had “no assurance that the meeting on July 27th will provide a respectful forum for me or other supporters of a Bears Ears National Monument to be heard.”


San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally speaks against the monument proposal at a July 16 listening session before federal officials in Bluff. Photo by Gail Binkly.

Willie Greyeyes, chair of the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikeyah, said in a statement that supporters of the monument had come out 2 to 1 to opponents at the July 16 session. “It is clear that Native Americans in Utah and around the region strongly support the national monument. A misinformation campaign was launched in June to turn people against a Bears Ears National Monument by spreading lies and telling supporters to stay away due to the potential for violence.

“This PLI field hearing is a thinly veiled effort to make it appear that there is more opposition than truly exists. The majority of San Juan County citizens support the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.”


Four branches of the U.S. military are represented in the regalia worn by military veterans of the Sisters Nation Color Guard. From left, Michela Alire, U.S.Army; Belinda Running Wolf Metteba, U.S. Marine Corps, both of Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Towaoc; Candice Pioche, U.S. Air Force, Cheyenne River Sioux and Navajo; and Carisa Yazzie Gonzales, U.S. Army, Navajo. They attended the listening session in support of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition National Monument. Photo by Lyn Lundberg-Mathews.

But in his introductory remarks on the long-awaited bill Chaffetz said he is convinced that the PLI is the best overall solution. This legislation “goes beyond conservation. In the case of Bears Ears, it safeguards access of traditional tribal uses and provides a meaningful seat at the table for tribal interests. Let’s give weight to the broad coalition of interests and enable a comprehensive solution to lands disputes that have plagued the West for generations.”

Supporters of the monument disagree. A key group of Utah sports, health and outdoor recreation companies is planning a press conference Aug. 4 at 11 a.m. at the Summer Market in Salt Lake City. They are calling for President Obama to declare a national monument at Bears Ears.

According to a statement, the event will bring together thousands of retailers and manufacturers to show a unified voice in support of efforts to protect the area.

The businesses include include Osprey Packs, based in Cortez, Colo., Patagonia, Keen Footwear, Rossignol, Black Dianond Equipment, The North Face and many more.

From August 2016. Read similar stories about , .