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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.

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Respondents favored filing the suit by a margin of 55 percent to 41 percent; most had strong feelings one way or the other, showing how divisive the issue is.

The Bears Ears polling numbers had a slightly wider spread, with majorities expressing strongly held views. Political conservatives and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were more likely to oppose the monument and support action to overturn it, while Democrats overwhelmingly favored the monument. Independents narrowly favored the monument by 42 percent to 41 percent.

Republicans remain angry about what they see as Obama's "unilateral" action despite his administration's outreach to San Juan County during the months leading up to the designation, which Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, denounced as "a repulsive act of political cronyism."

"We do not need this designation to honor and revere the sacred treasures within our borders," Stratton said. "It's about process not protection."

Critics of the resolutions noted that various tribal councils, as well as six of the seven Utah Navajo chapters, passed resolutions in support of the Bears Ears designation.

"In essence we're doing the same thing to the tribes as some of us perceive the federal government is doing to us here in Utah. For many tribal citizens, this land is sacred and worthy of protection," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. "We should do all what we can to protect the freedoms of all religions and all Americans, especially Native Americans."

The most contentious issue over monuments centers on whether they thwart or nourish economic activity. Rep. Mike Noel, a Kanab Republican whose district includes both monuments, said the Grand Staircase has locked up $2 trillion worth of high-quality, low-sulfur coal 700 feet under the Kaiparowits Plateau and put an end to a vibrant film industry.

"Once-thriving rural Utah communities and their citizens are suffering economic deprivation at the hand of their own federal government, which a national monument tourism economy fails to alleviate," HCR11 states. The Bears Ears designation "will forever remove the possibility of economic development and decimate the economy of the region with impacts felt around the state."

The Grand Staircase resolution, HCR12, makes similar assertions, repeating the oft-cited enrollment drops at Escalante High School as evidence that the monument has ensured that Garfield and Kane counties' leading export is children.

For Escalante business leaders, however, that enrollment drop is more a reflection of low education standards in Garfield County School District. They say their town is thriving economically and credit the monument, designated out of the blue in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton.

"We have a clinic, pharmacy, a dentist, a home center. All that is progress," said chamber leader Dennis Waggoner, proprietor of Escalante Outfitters. "We can't get enough skilled labor here to build the things we need. A town that is dying doesn't have a housing shortage."

Other chamber members tried to meet with Hughes on Tuesday morning, but he declined to speak with them, according to Escalante builder Mark Austin. That perceived slight came after the House Rules Committee was criticized for holding an unusual hearing, in violation of House rules, that took public testimony only from monument opponents.

Reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this report. Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8713.

Twitter: @brianmaffly