San Juan County asks President-elect Joe Biden to immediately restore Bears Ears National Monument

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument are shown on Dec. 28, 2016, in southeastern Utah. The San Juan County Commission, which cheered the shrinking of the monument three years ago now has reversed course and asked the incoming administration to restore its original boundaries.

With fewer than 50 days remaining before Inauguration Day, the San Juan County Commission passed a resolution Tuesday calling upon President-elect Joe Biden “to take immediate action to restore the Bears Ears National Monument” once he assumes office.

The resolution marks a dramatic reversal of the commission’s position from four years ago when, in December 2016, President Barack Obama designated a 1.35 million-acre national monument at the request of five Native American tribes with ties to the region over the loud objections of nearly every elected leader in Utah.

President Donald Trump reduced Bears Ears National Monument to 15% of its original size the following year, citing local opposition to the monument as one of the leading reasons for his decision.

Flanked by the three members of the then-San Juan County Commission, all of whom opposed the monument’s designation, Trump promised to restore a “truly representative process, one that listens to the local communities that knows [sic] the land the best and that cherishes [sic] the land the most.”

Trump’s remarks came amid a seven-year-long voting rights battle between San Juan County and the Navajo Nation, however, that found the County Commission districts had disenfranchised Native American voters. After a federal judge ordered a court-appointed special master to redraw the districts, a 2018 special election brought in the first majority Native American commission to the county, which has a plurality of Native American residents.

Incoming Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes — both Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation — quickly reversed the county’s official position on Bears Ears, passing resolutions that called not only for the monument’s restoration but also its expansion to 1.9 million acres, as was originally requested by the Hopi, Zuni, Diné (Navajo), Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian representatives on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 7, 2019, file photo, Bruce Adams, Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes thank their supporters, after being sworn in to the San Juan County Commission, at the county courthouse in Monticello.

On the campaign trail, Biden promised to take “immediate steps to reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on America’s natural treasures,” including Bears Ears.

Woody Lee, a member of the Navajo Nation from San Juan County who recently became executive director of the pro-monument group Utah Diné Bikéyah, applauded the commission’s resolution and Biden’s campaign promise.

“In the eyes of our grassroots people, this is home to them,” Lee said. “This is why people call it Mother Earth. It’s a place with a whole lot of sacred sites that surrounds Navajo, Ute, Zuni Pueblo, Hopi that have ties to that land.”

All five tribes in the coalition sued the federal government over Trump’s reduction order, which they argue was implemented illegally, and the case has continued to work its way through the court system.

Lee noted that several chapters of the Navajo Nation as well as the Utah Navajo Commission have passed similar resolutions calling on immediate action from the incoming Biden administration.

“We did the right thing,” Grayeyes said of the resolution, which passed 2-1. “I’m hoping the changes will come in our favor. We stand together.”

Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican from Monticello and the only non-Indigenous member of the commission, cast the sole vote against the resolution.

“We know that Joe Biden had made it a priority in his campaign to restore this monument,” Adams said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It seems a little bit premature to me to try and put pressure on him to do this before … he’s taken his oath of office.”

He added: “There’s a lot more that needs to be done to help the Navajo people than play political games.”

Maryboy, who along with Grayeyes was a board member of Utah Diné Bikéyah before he was elected to the commission, said the resolution merely reiterates the county’s official position on the monument, which was established last year. He added that the county is distributing Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grants to assist residents, work that will continue alongside the push to restore Bears Ears.

Lockhart Basin, an area that Trump removed from the monument in 2017, became the center of international attention last week when a tall metal sculpture known as the “Utah monolith” was discovered in a remote canyon. Grayeyes said he hasn’t been following the viral news story too closely, but he hopes attention will soon return to respecting Indigenous connections with the Bears Ears landscape, not illegally installed art projects.

The so-called monolith, Grayeyes said, is “unrelated to the concept and perspective of the Native American [ties] to the Bears Ears region,” which, he added, represent “a deeper meaning and relationship than this recent human creation, sculpture or whatever it may be.”

Lee also emphasized those cultural ties as key to understanding the significance of the national monument, which contains evidence of human habitation dating back to the ice age.

Said Lee: “It’s a place of healing.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.