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Top Utah leaders vow to use whole ‘arsenal’ to fight Bears Ears monument

First Published      Last Updated Feb 20 2017 04:30 pm

Antiquities Act » Elsewhere in Capitol, monument supporters say it’s time for Obama to step in and designate Bears Ears before leaving the office.

Presenting a united front against an anticipated national monument designation, Utah's top political leaders and several state and local elected officials rallied Monday afternoon at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, demanding that outgoing President Barack Obama refrain from "unilaterally" setting aside the Bears Ears region.

Led by Sen. Mike Lee, they argued such an "abuse" of executive power, authorized under the 1906 Antiquities Act, offends the principles of American democracy and would be a slap in the face of San Juan County residents.

A "midnight monument" proclamation, they said, could do more to harm this landscape, which includes the public lands surrounding Bears Ears Buttes west of Blanding, than protect it, they say.

Utah's congressional delegation, Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes pledged to use "every tool in our arsenal" to undo a monument. They agreed Bears Ears is a special place worthy of protection, but say that is best achieved through a legislative process.

"We are committed to doing that, but there is a right way and wrong way, and this is the wrong way," said Rep. Chris Stewart. "Mr. President, if you care about the Antiquities Act, don't do this. If you abuse the Antiquities Act, Congress is going to take that power away from future presidents. ... If you care about trust between the American people and Washington, D.C., then don't do this because by doing this you will break down that trust ... there are so many people who look at the big heavy hand of the federal government and recognize that many times they don't care about people in the West and don't care about people in Utah."

Sen. Orrin Hatch announced he intends to introduce legislation that would exempt Utah from Antiquities Act designations, and Reyes promised to file a lawsuit.

Crashing Monday's Capitol event were at least 150 monument supporters, led by three elected tribal representatives who speak for the Navajo and Ute nations, which — along with the Hopi and Zuni — have formally petitioned the president to protect 1.9 million acres as a national monument.

Addressing an overflow crowd in a downstairs meeting room, Davis Filfred said he saw a good omen in the Chicago Cubs' World Series recent victory after a century of heartache.

"I'm here to say, take out your pen and sign the Antiquities Act. This is the year of the bears. It was the Cubs that won the Series, and now the Bear is going to be a national monument," said Filfred, who serves on the Navajo Nation Council representing several Utah chapter houses. "I told Secretary [Sally] Jewell, 'President Obama needs to be brave. This land should be protected. It is beyond due.' Our culture, our heritage, our language, everything is there within the cliff dwellings."

Joining Filfred in support of a monument were Malcolm Lehi, a White Mesa cattleman who served on the Ute Mountain Ute council; and Shaun Chapoose, council chairman of Ute Indian Tribe. The monument proposal they champion calls for leaving the land open for rituals, gathering herbs and wood, and other traditional practices — the very things San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally says would be foreclosed should a monument be declared.

Benally hails from the same Aneth chapter as Filfred, but has an opposite view on the monument, which she likens to a government "land grab" that would lock out Native Americans and undermine their way of life and economic development in one of the most impoverished corners of the West.

The most prominent Navajo opposed to the monument, Benally opened and closed Lee's gathering in the Capitol's elegant Gold Room. She called on environmental groups to quit "romanticizing and using Native Americans" for their political ends and decried the monument proposal for dividing tribal communities and tearing families apart.

Benally has argued a monument would be a "devastation" thrust on Utah's Native Americans, but Filfred believes actual devastation is what could await Cedar Mesa and its maze of canyons and buttes if Obama fails to proclaim a monument. He pointed to the contamination left by oil and gas development in his hometown, several miles to the east of Bears Ears.

"To me, that means leveling it into a parking lot, going after the oil, uranium and potash between the Ears. I want wilderness. I don't want my land torn up. There is sacredness everywhere, every plant, every rock," Filfred said.

Joining Lee and his congressional colleagues in the Gold Room were all three members of the San Juan County Commission and the two state lawmakers who represent this area, Sen. David Hinkins and Rep. Mike Noel, as well as top legislative leaders. Chaffetz was the sole member of Utah's congressional delegation not at Monday's event, due to a scheduling conflict.

At numerous press events and meetings with top federal officials, Herbert has implored the president to give Congress a chance to act on the Public Lands Initiative, or PLI, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz's ambitious bill that identifies which lands in eastern Utah are to be preserved and which are to be open for development. The bill envisions national conservation areas and wilderness designations for the Bears Ears region.

But conservationists say the governor's events only highlight Bishop's shortcomings as a legislator.

Obama has waited to act on Bears Ears until the waning moments of his tenure to give the Utah congressman, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, every chance to get his sweeping lands bill passed, argued Democratic lawmakers at the tribe leaders' press event. The House adjourned earlier this month without taking a vote on the PLI.

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