UTAH – Despite the efforts by Utah’s top Republicans to keep it from happening, President Barack Obama made the Bear Ears National Monument a reality Wednesday afternoon. To say the announcement has sparked displeasure among the monument’s opponents would be an understatement.
Along with Bears Ears, the president also designated the Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada.
The new Bears Ears Monument covers 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah. It is an area held sacred by Native Americans and contains thousands of cultural and archeological sites of importance, according to the Department of the Interior.
“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” Obama said in a statement.
A monument designation was originally proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 and was originally nearly 2 million acres. They wanted additional protections for the lands while also preserving traditional uses. The coalition’s efforts were supported by environmental advocacy groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“We applaud the President’s decision and congratulate the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition for this historic protection of their ancestral homeland,” said Scott Groene, SUWA’s executive director.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called it an exciting day for his tribe and people of all cultures.
“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Begaye said. “The rocks, the winds, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
The Navajo Nation is one of five tribes that will get an elected official on a first-of-its-kind tribal commission for the Bears Ears monument. The panel will provide federal land managers with tribal expertise and historical knowledge about the area, federal officials said.
Opponents of the monument have said it will greatly hinder local access and usage of the area and have negative impacts on the people who live in the area of the new monument.
Earlier this month, elected officials ranging from Utah’s congressional delegation, down through state government to the San Juan County Commission, stood together to ask the president not to create the monument. If he did, they said they would pursue every means necessary to dismantle and undo the new monument.
Their condemnation of the monument and vows to undo it continued in the wake of the president’s announcement.
“The creation of the Bears Ears National Monument marks the second time in the recent past that a president has used the Antiquities Act to lock up millions of acres of land in Utah without daring to set foot in the state,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said in a statement. “I am disgusted by the process and will fight this monument with every tool at my disposal, including through the appropriations process.”
In other words, if Stewart can cut funding to the new monument, he will.
Sen. Mike Lee, who has been very vocal about his opposition to the monument, has said he will work with the incoming administration of Donald Trump to find ways to undo it.
“This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand,” Lee said Wednesday. “I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation.”
Lee and others have also said they may seek a way to curtail use of the Antiques Act by future presidents in relation to creating new monuments.
The San Juan County Commission, consisting of Commissioners Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams and Rebecca Benally, blasted the president’s decision as well:
Today San Juan County mourns after President Barack Obama gave into pressure from extreme environmental groups, out-of-state tribal leaders, and corporate interests by designating the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.
The push for a monument did not originate from those most impacted by the decision; instead, it came from outside special interest groups who used deception and collusion to drown out local voices. San Juan County has only to look to our neighbors in Garfield and Kane counties to see the devastating consequences this process produces – the destruction of archeological resources and cultural resources, the closure of public schools and a shattered economy.
Our families, our local tribes, and our community deserve better – they deserve to be heard and respected. As elected representatives of San Juan County, we call on Congress and the incoming president to heed the voices of locals who care for and love our county’s public lands the most by rescinding the monument designation.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also voiced his frustration. In a statement Wednesday, he said Utah already had a comprehensive solution to help protect the Bears Ears region – that being Rep. Rob Bishop’s, R-Utah, proposed Public Lands Initiative legislation.
“Instead, the president’s midnight proclamation cherry picked provisions of the Public Lands Initiative and disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise,” Chaffetz said. “In reality, a win-win solution never really had a chance as the very threat of the Antiquities Act prevented a serious negotiation with the stakeholders of PLI – many of whom never wanted a compromise to begin with.”
Chaffetz went on to say that the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that supported the monument will discover they have been misled.
“The president’s promise of co-management between the tribes and the federal government cannot be gained through executive action,” he said. “Only Congress can authorize such agreements – and the administration made little effort to help facilitate legislation that would have done so.”
That statement contradicts a part of the statement from the Department of the Interior praising the monument designation:
The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument protects one of the richest cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and areas of spiritual significance. These lands are sacred to many Native American tribes today who use them for ceremonies, collecting medicinal and edible plants, and gathering materials for crafting baskets and footwear. To ensure that management decisions affecting the monument reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge, the Presidential proclamation establishes a Bears Ears Commission, comprised of tribal representatives, to provide guidance and recommendations on management of the monument.
Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz’s Utah Public Lands Initiative (H.R. 5780) proposed to conserve 1.39 million acres (1.28 million Federal acres) in mostly the same area as the Bears Ears National Monument by designating two new National Conservation Areas and a Wilderness, which would prohibit future mining and oil and gas activities in these areas. Their legislation also proposed a Tribal Commission to help inform management of the area and created additional opportunities for interested stakeholders to offer input, similar to what today’s action has established. These designations build on the framework developed by the Congressmen to both protect and allow for continued use and enjoyment of the area by residents and visitors.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Wednesday that, “My office is working closely with the Governor’s office, federal and state legislators, and San Juan County to file a lawsuit challenging this egregious overreach by the Obama Administration.”
While Utah Republicans were displeased, leading Utah Democrats praised the designation.
“We have seen a powerful call to action by tribal communities to protect their history, holy places and their ancestral experience,” Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, said. “I am grateful that President Obama recognizes the importance of this extraordinary national treasure to present and future generations, and applaud his action to preserve this land of amazing scenic beauty and incredible cultural significance.”
In Nevada, a 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas would protect a scenic and ecologically fragile area near where rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with government agents in 2014. It includes rock art, artifacts, rare fossils and recently discovered dinosaur tracks.
Retiring Nevada Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has pushed for protections at Gold Butte, a remote area northeast of Lake Mead, but GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation have been vocal opponents.
The “designation is a wonderful capstone to a career of fighting to protect Nevada’s pristine landscapes,” Reid said in a statement.
Republican Nevada Sen. Dean Heller expressed disappointment, saying land designations should be done by Congress and not by presidential decree.
Associated Press writers Brady Combs, Michelle L. Price and Michelle Rindels contributed to this story.
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