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Poll shows Utahns hardly united against Bears Ears as House seeks to erase it

First Published      Last Updated Apr 13 2017 08:47 pm

But as lawmakers vote to reverse designations, survey shows public opinion is divided.

With protesters noisily chanting nearby Tuesday, Republican lawmakers passed controversial resolutions seeking to erase the new Bears Ears National Monument and trim Grand Staircase-Escalante.

On a largely party-line 60-14 vote, the Utah House sent HCR11 to the Senate, where leaders promised a full committee hearing on the measure that asks President Donald Trump to rescind the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears designation proclaimed by his predecessor on Dec. 28.

As state leaders continue mobilizing against Bears Ears, new polling shows that most Utahns oppose the designation and support legal, executive or legislative action aimed at overturning the designation.

The Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics survey polled 605 registered voters between Jan. 9 and Jan. 16 to gauge their positions on Bears Ears and other subjects.

More than half (52 percent) opposed the monument designation compared with 34 percent in support, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points. The split was narrower for women, with 45 opposed vs. 37 percent in favor.

Thirty-nine percent of all respondents said they strongly opposed the declaration, in contrast with the 22 percent who voiced strong approval.

The poll suggests Utahns are far more divided than the state's political leadership wants to acknowledge. Republican lawmakers continue to assert a virtual consensus exists among state residents in opposition to the Bears Ears designation.

Those divisions were apparent Tuesday morning outside the House chambers on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debated the resolution and a companion bill aimed at trimming the 20-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A few dozen people chanted "public lands in public hands" and held signs including, "Use your Bears Ears and listen to the people."

The protest was organized by Moroni Benally, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters.

"We believe in the protection of Native American sacred sites," Benally said. "That is what Bears Ears National Monument does." He said the push to rescind the monument "really demeans tribal sovereignty."

Monument critics cite an alleged toll suffered by communities surrounding Grand Staircase to support the assertion that setting aside Bears Ears will devastate San Juan County's economy and culture.

They also say the Obama administration relied on misinformation, was unduly influenced by "special interests" and disregarded local sentiment to designate the monument under a misapplication of the 1906 Antiquities Act — even though that designation came at the request of American Indian tribes in the Four Corners area.

"There is a no space, no light between the shoulder-to-shoulder opposition to the designation that took place between our federal delegation to our legislative leaders and our county commissioners," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the sponsor of the resolution calling on Trump to rescind the Bears Ears designation.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, argued there is plenty of enthusiasm for monuments among his constituents and insisted such designations support economic diversification, whereas reliance of resource extraction is a recipe for stagnation.

"To suggest that the Grand Staircase-Escalante is a drag on those things is not borne out be the facts," said King, whose grandfather ranched in Garfield County.

The monument controversy is unfolding against the backdrop of Utah's effort to take control of 31 million acres of public land.

Separate Tribune-Hinckley polling has found Utahns are also sharply divided over a proposed lawsuit to accomplish the land transfer, which conservationists view as a land seizure to benefit extractive industries. Many legal scholars question the state's legal footing to assert a claim to these lands and such a suit is expected to cost taxpayers $14 million.

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