Utah’s Grand County asks President-elect Joe Biden to restore Bears Ears monument borders

Grand joins neighboring San Juan County in seeking reversal of President Donald Trump’s action in shrinking the monument.

The Grand County Commission sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden last week requesting that he keep his campaign pledge and “take immediate action to restore the Bears Ears National Monument to its original size” once he’s in office.

The move follows similar letters approved by the San Juan County Commission and the Utah Navajo Commission last month and marks a growing show of support for the monument from local governments in southeast Utah. Still, most other southern Utah counties are governed by conservatives who oppose the more expansive monument.

Grand County’s letter, which was approved by a unanimous vote from the seven-member Commission, calls President Barack Obama’s 2016 designation of a 1.35 million-acre national monument in San Juan County “an historic act that recognized the leadership of five Native American Tribes — Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain and Ute — that were united in calling for the protection of this spectacular place in southeastern Utah.”

It also notes that President Donald Trump’s reduction of the monument to 15% of its original size in 2017 was done over the objections of those five tribes, all of which have sued the president over the legality of the cuts. The case is still pending in federal court.

Then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah’s entire Congressional delegation at the time applauded Trump’s order reducing the monuments. And many opponents of the original monument boundaries, including Trump and Herbert, cited local opposition as a leading reason for their decision.

“All the elected officials, really, are in opposition,” Herbert said at a news conference eight days before Obama created the monument, “and the closer you get to the epicenter of Bears Ears, the more the opposition grows.”

But the official position of local governments closest to the monument has changed over the last four years, most dramatically in San Juan County, where — as the result of a protracted voting rights lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation — voters elected two pro-monument, Navajo commissioners in 2018.

The new commissioners, Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, passed resolutions in 2019 not only calling for the restoration of Bears Ears but its expansion to the 1.9 million-acre boundaries originally proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Commissioner Bruce Adams, the sole Republican on the Commission, voted against all pro-monument measures put forward by Maryboy and Grayeyes.

Grand County’s resolution did not mention the expansion proposal, but in the meeting where it was approved, several commissioners expressed a desire to show solidarity with San Juan County over the original monument designation.

“I’m happy to support our neighbors to the south and happy to support Bears Ears,” said Commission Chair Mary McGann, adding she also wanted to back the five tribes that “were so saddened by [Trump’s] choice to ignore their voices.”

Commissioner Kevin Walker thanked San Juan County for its recent denial of a permit for an off-road vehicle rally just south of Moab, which came at Grand County’s request, and said he wanted to make the relationship between the counties a “two-way street.”

On Tuesday, the Moab City Council approved a letter to Biden in support of a 1.35 million-acre monument, and the Bluff Town Council passed a resolution supporting an expanded, 1.9 million-acre monument.

“The inaugural boundary effectively protected the world-class cultural resources, natural beauty and recreational opportunities found [in Bears Ears],” Moab City Councilor Kalen Jones said in a statement. “Obama’s proclamation was the result of an extensive stakeholder engagement process, and we urge the Biden administration to take immediate action to reinstate the monument to its original area.”

But not all municipalities are joining the show of support. Blanding and Monticello, San Juan’s two biggest towns, passed a joint resolution against reinstating the boundaries of Bears Ears last month. It says the monument was created without proper “local input and support” in 2016 and questions that the majority of county residents support the monument, alleging that the commission’s resolution was “not authored locally but by entities outside San Juan County.”

“When [the county resolution] goes out to the media … it makes it sound like all of San Juan County wants the Bears Ears to be increased … but I know a lot of us disagree with an increase to the Bears Ears for many reasons,” said Blanding City Councilmember Cheryl Bowers at a meeting.

The Inter-Tribal Coalition said it looks forward to working with the Biden administration on restoring protections to the “thousands of significant cultural and natural objects, landmarks, structures, and places, including ancient burial grounds” that were removed from the monument boundaries by Trump.

“The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the monument-bordering White Mesa community remains optimistic as we await meaningful government to government engagement with the Biden administration to collaboratively manage and protect cultural resources, sacred sites, and to maintain access for ceremonial practices and traditional uses, such as wood or plant gathering and hunting, within the Bears Ears landscape,” said Malcolm Lehi, the coalition’s White Mesa representative of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, in a recent statement.

“The time has come to protect Bears Ears and we must heed that call together,” Lehi said.

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.