US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited Utah's 'Bears Ears' last week in an attempt to resolve an increasingly contentious debate over whether to designate the San Juan County cultural landscape as a US National Monument.
While divisive, the debate over the area designation is also nuanced, with some wanting to see sensitive cultural sites protected from vandalism and others fearing that more rigorous regulations will restrict cultural and economic activity.
“There is nobody that I talk to that doesn’t want to see these areas protected,” said Ms. Jewell at a three-and-a-half hour public meeting on Saturday before a packed room, according to Deseret News, which reports on news in Salt Lake City and Utah.
"That is what all of this is about, listening to each of you," Jewell said on the third day of her tour. "It has been several days of intense listening and several days of getting out in these incredible landscapes and feeling the power that exists within them."
The area contains more than 100,000 archaeological sites and 18 wilderness study areas and inventoried roadless areas. Twenty-six tribes support protecting the lands, but only one full-time law enforcement officer patrols the area, according to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
More than 10,000 people have signed a petition asking President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect the 1.9 million acres of native American ancestral land on the Colorado Plateau with National Monument designation.
Jewell got an intimate view of threats to the cultural sites on a Saturday hike. Petroglyphs depicting big-horn sheep, plants, and wandering lines that emerge from cracks – thought by some archaeologists to represent the paths of individual lives and their spiritual origins – are threatened by hikers who take rocks to make cairns and engrave messages on the walls, said John Ewing, Executive Director of Friends of the Cedar Mesa in the meeting, emphasizing a need for better education.
The heart of the issue is whether the area should be fully protected as a National Monument, or partially protected under the congressional Public Lands Initiative bill, championed by US Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both Republicans. The bill would designate 1.4 million acres around Bears Ears as conservation area, which would keep access open for development, including oil, gas, and mining exploration.
Others opposed the designation not because it restricted business, but culture. Notah Tahy, a Navajo man from Blanding held up a sign at the meeting that read, “No to a national monument," according to The Washington Post. He said he fears that traditional activities like gathering wood and hunting would be restricted by the designation.
Jewell reassured tribespeople at the meeting that, if the designation proceeded, “the traditional activities that have gone on in these lands since time immemorial will continue."
Still, Utah Republican officials, local officials, and some Native Americans support The Public Lands Initiative – also called the “Grand Bargain” – instead. The initiative, which took three years to pull together, seeks to manage 18 million acres of land in eastern Utah.
Frustrated with the negotiations five tribes founded the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 to oppose the initiative, according to Deseret News. Part of the coalition are the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe.
"They have so much in common in what I hear from you that I hope there will be a coming together," Jewell said of tribal members opposed to the designation. "There is nothing like listening and touching and hearing the different points of view and the similar points of view."