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In Utah, a battle over the buttes

A Native American tribal coalition is pressing President Obama to designate the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah a national monument prior to leaving office, but a less restrictive alternate plan backed by the state’s top elected leaders has gained steam in Congress.

The House Committee on Natural Resources will hold a hearing on the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, authored by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Ogden), in September. The bill would cover 1.2 million acres of federal land in Utah’s San Juan County, earmarking different portions of the land for conservation, recreation or economic development.

Supporters of the bill see it as a way to conserve important cultural and archeological sites in the Bears Ears area while allowing development of energy resources where appropriate.

The tribes – Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain, Pueblo, Ute and Hopi – argue for stronger restrictions. They favor an official designation of the two "buttes" – wide, high, flat hills – as a monument, thus banning future mineral development. The area in question encompasses nearly two million acres, and their proposal would give the tribes a say in land management alongside federal officials.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who is monitoring the proposals put forth to protect the area, visited the Bears Ears region last month. She has said that she would not recommend a monument proposal unless it has strong local support.

Most advocates in the debate say their position does the most to benefit the local residents in San Juan County, the poorest region in the state, but the definition of “local” varies depending on which stakeholder you talk to.

Policy institutes, such as Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks and the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City, see the monument proposal as a land grab that will limit residents in the county from developing a diverse economy through multiple land uses. Moreover, FreedomWorks complains that out-of-state environmental organizations, including the Hewlett and Packard foundations in California, are bankrolling the pro-monument campaign.

Gavin Noyes, executive director of the nonprofit called Utah Diné Bikeyah, said such charges don’t ring true in San Juan County, where more than half of the population is Native American and the vast majority of residents support the monument.

“There is no environmental group out there that has sway over the tribes and what they’re trying to do here,” Noyes told AMI Newswire.

The effort to define the proposed Bears Ears Monument’s boundaries began in 2010 and originated with local people who live adjacent to the Bears Ears region, he said. Since then, numerous groups, such as those interested in the archeological sites in the area and wilderness organizations, have expressed support for protecting the lands.

“Yes, the tribes are in charge,” Noyes said, “but it does take a lot of diverse interests to get things done.”

Economic development would not be closed out if the region were designated a national monument, he said. Possible opportunities would include traditional Native American arts, restaurants that highlight native foods and other tourism pursuits.

“My board is working on planning efforts that would utilize conservation as a means of moving toward sustainable economic development opportunities,” Noyes said.

Others representing Native American groups are leery about changes in land management that could lead to future restrictions on how they are allowed to use the land.

“It doesn’t seem broken to us as far as what we can access,” Byron Clarke, vice president of a Navajo organization called Blue Mountain Diné, told AMI Newswire.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have the ability now to protect the lands and allow local residents access to firewood, hunting, camping and collecting herbs and medicinal plants, Clarke said. “They can’t improve on what we have today,  Why put everything up for gamble now?”

Clarke also raises concerns about whether the five tribes that favor monument status that  are headquartered 100 or more miles away from San Juan County, could really make decisions on land use that would serve the needs of local residents, including the Navajo who live in the county. The capital of the Navajo Nation is 200 miles away in Window Rock, Ariz.

The history of other national monuments shows that there is always less access and more restrictions for people after the monuments are created, Clarke said. In addition, the tourism that comes with monument status could also lead to larger developments, such as visitor centers, and greater stress on the land, including vandalism, he said.

Leaving options open for some mineral extraction in parts of the region – such as oil and gas development and uranium and potash mining – helps provide jobs to local Navajos, Clarke said. The Native Americans who live in the area include skilled engineers and heavy equipment operators, he said, and they benefit through jobs in the energy field.

Clarke acknowledged that protection of sensitive areas in southeastern Utah, such as the Bears Ears buttes, Cedar Mesa and the Anasazi ruins, is needed, but that could be done without creating a monument that extends out a hundred or more miles.

Although he sees some problems with the Public Lands Initiative Act, Clarke said that bill contains language that would change how oil and gas royalty money in the region is allocated, sending more of it to support education programs for local Navajos and less to the Navajo Nation as a whole. That would be a positive change, he said.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition opposes the federal bill, saying it would leave numerous areas of cultural interest unprotected, open areas to damage from all-terrain vehicles and not give tribes an adequate role in the management of the Utah lands.

Opponents of the monument campaign include state lawmakers, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Provo), whose district includes the Bears Ears region, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch.