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Obama declares Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah

First Published      Last Updated Jun 13 2017 05:27 pm

The president uses the Antiquities Act to set aside 1.35M acres surrounding San Juan County’s Cedar Mesa and 300,000 acres in southern Nevada.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday protected a sprawling landscape in southeastern Utah that many had either hoped or dreaded would join the outgoing president's long list of national monuments.

The 1.35 million acres of public lands surrounding San Juan County's Cedar Mesa will be known as Bears Ears National Monument, named after the pair of buttes protruding from a ridge joining the mesa and the Abajo Mountains to the north.

What is Bears Ears? Read more here, see how Utahns are reacting and read Obama's proclamation.

Obama made the designation at the behest of five Indian tribes with ancestral and spiritual ties to Cedar Mesa, the highlands west of Blanding where ancient cultural sites abound.

The president also set aside Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada. That 300,000-acre monument is near the ranch of Cliven Bundy, who stands charged, along with supporters, in the 2014 armed standoff with federal officers trying to seize his cattle.

Like Bears Ears, Gold Butte includes "abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes," according to a White House statement.

"Today's actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes," Obama's statement continues.

A Bears Ears Commission was also established to work with the federal Interior and Agriculture departments to craft a management plan for the monument that reflects "tribal expertise as well as traditional and historical knowledge," according to a White House news release.

There has been broad agreement that the Bears Ears region should be protected, but opinions diverge sharply over the extent of that protection and the mechanism for achieving it.

In the works for several years was Rep. Rob Bishop's Utah Public Lands Initiative — a seven-county "grand bargain" designed to protect some Utah lands, open others to development and circumvent a monument. The PLI was introduced into the U.S. House in July, but Congress adjourned this month without taking action on it.

The new monument's footprint hews closely to the PLI's proposal for national conservation areas in San Juan County. But Bishop and many other state and San Juan County leaders say executive decree deprives locals of their voice and perpetuates conflict over use of public lands.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called Obama's declaration an "attack on an entire way of life" and an "astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power" that far exceeds the intent of the Antiquities Act.

"In the next Congress under President [Donald] Trump, I will do everything in my power to reverse this travesty," Hatch said.

He said he'll meet with Trump's pick to lead the Interior department, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, to discuss reversing the monument, and he and fellow Utah Sen. Mike Lee plan to reintroduce legislation exempting Utah from the Antiquities Act.

"This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand," Lee said in a statement. "I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation."

According to the White House, Wednesday's action is an attempt to satisfy both the PLI and a larger proposal from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up from representatives of the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray and Zuni Tribe.

Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said there has been broad support, including from Utah's elected officials, to protect the area, with the only difference the size, scope and means to do so.

"We are not concerned about a backlash about this designation, given the support for the location and the value and the cultural significance of this place," Goldfuss said on a conference call with reporters. "Of course, there are always political discussions but on the merits, this is the right thing to do and consistent with our designations across the board."

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