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An Ears Full

"Public Lands or Tribal Lands" panel discusses Bears Ears designation.

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Scott Groene, executive director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. - DW HARRIS
  • DW Harris
  • Scott Groene, executive director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Criticizing Utah's elected officials, a Moab conservationist says failure by Congress to pass protection at Bears Ears has necessitated a national monument designation on about 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah.


Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said at a panel discussion Thursday night that lawmakers have had a chance since 2009—near the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidential tenure—but came up miserably short.


The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance now fears that President-elect Donald Trump will make resource extraction a priority on public land. With that in mind, environmental groups and many Native Americans are eagerly awaiting an expected decision by the administration to designate Bears Ears as a national monument.


Utah’s elected officials proposed a Public Land Initiative bill, though it never made it to the president’s desk before this Congress recessed. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, has been criticized for disregarding Native Americans’ concerns in the creation of the PLI.


Christopher Fluhr, staff director on a subcommittee under Bishop, defended the process saying Ute Tribes were invited to the table. Fluhr, who sat in meetings with tribal leaders, says it’s a mischaracterization to say that Bishop didn’t listen to the tribes.


“If they had disagreements, they had disagreements,” he said, “but he did listen to them.”

In addition, Fluhr said members of the Navajo tribe in San Juan County are concerned a designation would limit traditional land use.


Groene points to this line of thinking as falsely spurring the impression that tribal opinion is mixed. The truth, he says, is that six out of seven Navajo chapters supported the Bears Ears proposal.


“The narrative that there’s this local opposition is just not a fair statement,” he said.


To listen to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, speak, one might get the impression that Obama is hellbent on creating the monument out of personal gratification. Actually, a coalition of Native Tribes petitioned the feds for a protection on the land.


In a demonstration of opposition, Chaffetz flanked Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, at a news conference Thursday morning. Herbert says he chatted with Obama’s chief of staff this week about whether the president intended to designate a monument, and Herbert says he was told that decision hadn’t been made yet.


Chaffetz, however, who coined the related hashtag #NoMidnightMonument, worries the administration is planning on passing a designation on its way out.


Herbert cited poll numbers expressing disapproval from a majority of Utahns—about 60 percent. “At best, the Native American support is mixed,” he said.


Cynthia Wilson, member of the Monument Valley Navajo community, says Herbert’s claim is not accurate.


“Sovereign tribal nations have united around the proposal and we have tens of thousands of supporters in Utah and hundreds of thousands across the nation,” she said in an email.


Native Americans have been supportive, in part, because of the promise for collaboration. In Chaffetz’ reading of the Appointments Clause, the government would be prohibited from unilaterally opening up the land for co-management.


Bishop says he opposes the Antiquities Act, in part, because it bypasses public participation through the NEPA process, and therefore must be conducted “in the shadows.” This requires lawmakers to base decisions on rumor. Bishop believes codifying a designation through Congress is “the right way” to change the status at Bears Ears.


But the conversation will be moot if Trump attempts to undo an Obama designation.


The Congressmen hold a paradoxical stance. They are simultaneously worried about lasting devastation wrought by a designation while saying that Obama’s legacy will be tarnished once Trump steps into office and reverses it.


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