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New survey finds 71 percent support Bears Ears monument in Utah

First Published      Last Updated Dec 28 2016 02:19 pm

Recent survey shows overwhelming support, 71 percent to 20 percent, but critics say it was “a classic push poll”; a group of American Indians join governor, lawmakers in protest at the Capitol.

Despite visceral opposition to a Bears Ears national monument from Utah political leaders, a new poll indicates more than two-thirds of registered Utah voters support such a designation to protect the archaeologically rich region in San Juan County.

However, critics deride the survey, sponsored by Creation Justice Ministries, as "a classic push poll" for framing the question in a way designed to elicit positive responses. Meanwhile, 24 Utah Navajos gathered on the Capitol steps with Gov. Gary Herbert to proclaim they have no interest in seeing a national monument imposed on a place many consider a sacred homeland.

Creation Justice Ministries, a Washington, D.C.-based group that seeks to protect spiritually significant places, commissioned the statewide telephone survey of 500 voters, which found support for a monument outpolled opposition, 71 percent to 20 percent.

"Voters value protecting cliff dwellings, Mormon pioneer artifacts and other unique historic sites from looters," said Shantha Ready Alonso, the group's executive director. "They want to continue enjoying recreational activities, conserve wildlife habitat and provide opportunities for families and children to spend time together and explore nature."

Tuesday's dueling media events came on the eve of the Utah Legislature's special session, during which lawmakers are expected to pass a resolution imploring President Barack Obama to not designate any monument in Utah under the Antiquities Act without legislative approval. The resolution's chief proponents stood with the American Indians, renewing their opposition to a monument the president is widely assumed to be considering as his tenure comes to an end.

Marie Holiday of the Navajo Oljato community said she fears she will have to travel 80 miles farther to gather firewood and pinyon nuts if the proposed 1.9 million-acre area becomes a monument. She and the others at the Capitol want a conservation plan, but not one controlled by the federal government.

"We want a conservation area so we have access to land we have used for many years," said Chester Johnson, of the Aneth Chapter. "This land relates to our ways that are traditional. We get food there. We get medicine."

Monument backers, like Willie Grayeyes and Mark Maryboy of Utah Dine Bikeyah, couldn't agree more and believe a monument is the best way to ensure both preservation of a fragile landscape and access for traditional practices.

Despite numerous monument endorsements from Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute and other tribal leaders, Utah lawmakers say tribal support is a "charade" manufactured by groups fronting for environmentalists.

That charge was repeated Monday by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, when he spoke on Trib Talk, The Salt Lake Tribune's online public affairs video chat.

He dismissed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition as "an outside group funded by outside resources, and their call for a monument is the opposite of what would be most beneficial."

Bishop said a national monument designation would impose all sorts of land-use restrictions and prevent tribal members from playing an active role in management.

"The coalition is proposing a plan of management that is totally unworkable and would lead to a great deal of disappointment," he said. "Their hunting and gathering practices are in conflict with the very nature of a monument. Once you have a monument, you turn over all sorts of operational control to the land manager. There has not been a monument where the types of gathering techniques they want are allowable. It is specifically allowed in our conservation efforts."

Bishop, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman, is the chief architect of the Utah Public Lands Initiative, which he says offers a compromise between development and conservation in seven eastern Utah counties and proposes a national conservation area for Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears buttes.

Bishop said he expects to introduce the bill — in the works for three years — to Congress "very, very soon."

A "unilateral" monument designation from Obama could derail the entire process, Bishop warned.

"There is no local buy-in," Bishop said. "There is no one who lives in that area who wants a monument. You have to go at least a five-hour drive away from that area to find someone who wants a monument."

That assertion is ridiculous, according to leaders of Utah Dine Bikeyah, the grass-roots tribal group that began developing the Bears Ears conservation initiative in 2010. They say they have engaged at least 7,000 tribal members who live in or near San Juan County and have seen minimal opposition to a monument. Supporters include Utah Navajo Nation Council's two Utah delegates, Herman Daniels and Davis Filfred; and Ute Mountain Ute tribal council members Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk and Malcolm Lehi.

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