Scott D. Pierce: KUED’s documentary ‘Battle Over Bears Ears’ raises issues — including racism

This 2017 file photo shows Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

The KUED documentary “Battle Over Bears Ears” does a major service to anyone with an interest in the ongoing dispute over federal land in San Juan County.

For one thing, there’s a lot of incredibly gorgeous film of the land in question. It’s an area a lot of people have opinions about — should there be a national monument? How big? — and relatively few have actually seen.

More important, filmmaker Nancy Green allows a lot of people on various sides of the issue to have their say. To express their viewpoints calmly and, for the most part, rationally. To make their feelings known.

That’s a relatively rare thing. Mostly, people have been screaming at each other about this. And it’s hard to hear what other people think when you’re screaming at them.

“Battle Over Bear Ears” (Monday, 8 p.m.) outlines the issues dating back a century, from the early efforts to protect the land to a 1930s proposal for a 4 million-acre national monument. From President Barack Obama declaring a 1.35 million-acre monument in December 2016 to President Donald Trump reducing that by 85 percent a year later.

On TV • “Battle Over Bears Ears” premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7 and repeats Tuesday at 10 p.m.; late Thursday/early Friday at midnight; Friday at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 18, at 3 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3 p.m.

It features San Juan County and Utah elected officials. Obama’s Interior secretary. Trump’s Interior secretary. American Indian leaders. Ranchers. Environmentalists. Recreationists. Local newspaper editors.

You’re going to agree with some of these people and disagree with others.

It would be great if those featured in the documentary would watch, not just to see what those on the other side have to say, but to listen to themselves. And maybe learn something.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from controversy — including charges of racism against those who oppose the efforts of local tribes to establish the monument.

“I've never seen such rancor and such hostility and such division as I've seen come out of this. It is to the point where if you oppose the monument, you're a racist,” said Jim Stiles, editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

But Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, former co-chairwoman of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said that while racism is “not clearly identified in this process … it’s in the back of everybody’s minds. It’s in the back of ours.”

Rabidly anti-monument San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lymanelected to the Utah Legislature on Tuesday — says on camera, “I still don’t know how to respond to that — to being accused of racism — other than to say, no, I’m not. I’m not a racist.”

He’s puzzled about why such charges are leveled. If he watches “Battle Over Bears Ears,” he might figure it out.

In response to tribal leaders supporting the Bears Ears monument, Rep. Rob Bishop says, “Many of them are fronts for environmental groups that are actually pushing a different agenda.” Lyman also accuses the American Indians of being in the pocket of environmentalists.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Phil Lyman, a San Juan County commissioner elected to the Utah Legislature this week, poses in a 2014 file photo.

“It makes a difference when Grand Canyon Trust starts writing you checks,” he says. “It’s their agenda.”

Maybe if Bishop and Lyman watch the documentary, they’ll recognize how paternalistic and condescending they sound. Maybe they’ll hear themselves as others hear them — implying that American Indians are too foolish, dumb or naive to think for themselves.

Maybe Lyman will regret laughing when he said, “National monuments were not a tool to fix racism.”

I have little hope that will happen. Just as I have little hope that much of anybody involved in this fight will sit down and listen to those with differing views.

But that doesn’t make KUED and Green’s efforts any less worthwhile. “Battle Over Bears Ears” does an excellent job of outlining the struggle for the rest of us.