Bears Ears rift reveals monumental federal-county chasm

Opposing philosophies of land ownership and conservation in Utah keep San Juan county officials and federal agencies from seeing eye-to-eye.

Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News/AP
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rode in the new Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah. On June 12 Mr. Zinke recommended that the new national monument in Utah be reduced in size and said Congress should step in to designate how selected areas of the 1.3 million-acre site are managed.

While many nationwide fear the potential loss of the country's newest monument, the leadership of at least one Utah county cheers the Trump administration's decision to reconsider the size of Bears Ears National Monument. 

Former President Barack Obama’s proclamation preserving more than 1.3 million acres of southern Utah’s ruin-filled canyon-maze in San Juan County thrilled many Native Americans, environmentalists, and outdoor enthusiasts. But where some see the protection of relics, others see diminished sovereignty.

The move infuriated community and state politicians, who decried it as freedom-quashing federal overreach. Local residents should get to decide how best to use and preserve the land, they say – not bureaucrats thousands of miles away who may never have seen it.

“I trust people to make good decisions; I don’t trust politicians to make good decisions,” says San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, criticizing the effect of big money on both sides. “Deals are made at a high level and often the currency is more wilderness, and they come to a county like San Juan without even recognizing that there are local people here.”

Monday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke answered local politicians' pleas with his interim report recommending that President Trump revise, and likely downsize, the monument.

His conclusion reflects a common complaint that the acreage designated was excessive. In his interim report, Mr. Zinke writes that many archaeological sites worthy of preservation exist, but that they are better managed individually than collectively. Moreover, certain officially classified wilderness areas in Bears Ears already enjoyed stronger protections than monument status provides, he writes. 

Environmental advocates and Native American tribes disagree, and will likely sue the federal government if it acts on Zinke's recommendation. 

Extraordinary measures

In December, Bears Ears joined the 156 other national monuments designated since 1906 under the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to name public lands as monuments. The designation restricts new contracts for extractive industries like mining and providing legal protection for the 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites on the land. But if its method of creation was ordinary, the motivation was anything but.

Six years of discussion brought together five Native American groups (Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe) in what Western land law lawyer Charles Wilkinson calls one of the most extraordinary social movements he’s ever seen. “A lot of these tribes have had long-standing grievances against each other, and I mean centuries,” says Professor Wilkinson, who helped draft their proposal pro bono. Their efforts resulted in a landmark agreement establishing co-management of the land between the tribal coalition and the federal government as true partners.

Despite significant national and statewide support for the monument, Zinke’s decision reflects fierce opposition from the local government, as well as the local chapter of the Navajo Nation (although Utah’s other six Navajo chapters support the monument). 

Most specific grievances cluster around themes of land access and economic prospects, with many fearing loss of hunting or firewood-gathering rights and reduced grazing land for ranchers. “If it’s a national monument, [federal agencies] can close whatever they want. If our watershed is in a national monument, they can shut it down,” says San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.

Such complaints baffle legal experts, who insist that proclamation architects made every effort to maintain local rights and access. With few exceptions, federal land remains federal land and state land remains state land. Utah continues to issue hunting and fishing licenses, and all valid existing rights, including water rights, remain unchanged, according to the text of the Obama administration proclamation.

The main legal difference, Wilkinson says, is that in a future land management plan “all decisions will be made with a “much heavier weight given to the value of the natural features and historical and scientific features of those lands,” including rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and wildlife.

But it’s precisely that decision-making process that has Mr. Lyman worried. He sees the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an oppressor who closes roads and disregards local opinion, and believes the monument boosts their power: “They’re bad actors and we’ve given them a bigger whip to use against us here locally.”

Bob Strong/Reuters
A view of Bears Ears, the twin rock formations that form part of Bears Ears National Monument in the Four Corners region, May 16.

Language in the proclamation providing for “maximum public involvement” and “consultation with federally recognized tribes and State and local governments” does little to convince Zane Odell, a third generation rancher who grazes more than 300 cattle on monument land. 

“A lot of that input goes in one ear and out the other,” says Mr. Zane, who serves on a number of community committees across the border in Colorado. “What they’ll do is weigh the local input,... but there’ll be way more environmental input from all over the nation.”

Philosophical differences

Such opinions reveal deeper, philosophical hurdles less easily addressed than concerns about who doles out firewood permits. The federal government owns nearly two out of every three Utah acres, a proportion unimaginable in the East. This majority stake has long chafed Western states, with some residents considering the arrangement an affront on their liberties.

Despite almost no land changing hands, Mr. Obama’s pen found its way directly onto this century-old pressure point when it sought to put new rules on what locals consider their land. Lyman, for one, calls the monument designation “the difference between freedom and serfdom.”

At stake is not only mining contracts and ranching land, but also birthright. Utah settlers “brought this land under control. Land that if you looked at it, you couldn’t imagine it being brought under control,” explains Wilkinson. “They do have a sense of ownership over it ... and I personally respect that feeling.”

And with that ownership comes a radically different philosophy of use, one that some locals call conservation rather than preservation, rooted in the belief that only they know best how to protect the land. 

“Preservation would be when they kick anybody out, including any industry, and preserve it for themselves,” argues Mr. Odell. “Conservation would be to use it wisely, and conserve, you know, graze it to help benefit some of the grass species.” 

Those searching to reassure nervous ranchers point to the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which faced similar opposition when then-President Bill Clinton created it in 1996 and joins Bears Ears on the list of large monuments under federal review. More than two decades later, ranching time has declined by a nearly imperceptible amount, and the community has enjoyed a tourism-supported boom in employment and income across the board.

But such facts and figures only play into residents’ other fears: an increase in tourist traffic that could damage their land. As such, emotions have flared into what Lyman calls “scorched earth politics.” In recent months, a BLM guard station burned under suspicious circumstances, fake fliers with misinformation stoked local anger, and vandals allegedly scraped anti-monument stickers from cars and targeted Odell’s cattle

With local leaders blaming monument activity on agenda-motivated outsiders and monument supporters suspecting extractive-industry tainted opposition, suspicion runs high in San Juan, and few expect a simple resolution when Zinke's final report comes out later this year. 

For now, a skeptical Odell plans to keep participating in local consultation while he awaits presidential and congressional response to Zinke's recommendation. “I don’t have much faith in that process,” he says. “But I’m thankful we do have that process rather than nothing at all.”

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