Navajos, Utah Officials Oppose Designation of Bears Ears as National Monument

Matthew Hrozencik | September 23, 2016 | 2:26pm EDT
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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell during her July 2016 visit to the "Bears Ears" region in southeastern Utah. (AP photo)


( -- Members of Utah’s congressional delegation, state officials, and some members of the Navajo Nation are calling on President Obama to withhold designating the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah as a national monument.

Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the president may designate national monuments on federal land.  

Although the Obama Administration has made no official announcement that it will designate the 1.9 million acre region - named for two prominent 9,000-foot-tall buttes that resemble the ears of a bear - a national monument,  U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who visited the area in July, stated that President Obama will “definitely decide before he leaves office.”

But Utah officials and Navajos who oppose such executive action are supporting Rep. Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, which would protect the land through local management while allocating 1.1 million acres for recreation and natural resource development.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted to move forward with Bishop’s bill on Thursday.

"The bill will provide land use certainty, proving that conservation and economic development can co-exist to build a new future of prosperity for our children," Bishop said. "This is a good bill developed by Utahns for Utah."

"Frankly, we're getting tired of outside people coming in to manage our lands when we can do it better,” said Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah) outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

"[Native Americans] don't want their land seized by some distant, cold government operating thousands of miles away," agreed Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Navajo residents from San Juan Country, who consider the Bears Ears region sacred land, believe that if the area becomes a national monument, Native Americans would not be allowed to carry out their traditional activities, such as wood gathering, livestock grazing and herb growing.  

At a Sept. 21 press conference on Capitol Hill, Navajo Lewis Singer cited the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, which was designated by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, where such activities became punishable by fines despite assurances from the federal government that they would be allowed.  

“We have managed to protect this enchanted place and we will continue to do so. Please do not take this land from us. Please don't break more promises [to Native Americans],” said a tearful Susie Philemon, another Navajo who lives in San Juan County. “Not again.”  

State officials and members of Congress agreed that the land in question should be managed at the state and local level.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asserted that the monument is not supported locally and would “exacerbate an already tense situation.”

"It will, in fact, not bring us together,” Herbert said. “It will, in fact, pull us apart."

However, five tribes and the Navajo Nation’s government in Window Rock, Arizona are supporting the monument.  

In a statement to President Obama, The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition expressed its view that a national monument would “cause citizens to understand and assess the worth of traditional Native views of humans and the land.”

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