Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to visit Utah next week to review monument boundaries

Details of the trip have yet to be released, but parties are lining up to give their input on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.

(Graeme Jennings | AP file photo) In this Feb. 23, 2021, photo, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is sworn in during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington. She will be visiting Utah next week.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s historic Cabinet pick, has been at her new post only since mid-March, but she’s already making good on her promise to visit Utah ahead of issuing recommendations on national monuments in the state.

Haaland will be in the Beehive State next week, the Interior Department announced Wednesday, and will journey as well to New Mexico, which she previously represented as a Democratic member of the U.S. House.

During her Senate confirmation hearing in February, Haaland vowed to take the trip as part of her review of the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments in southern Utah, which were reduced by more than 2 million total acres in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump.

Biden initiated a review of the monuments on his first day in office when he signed an executive order directing his administration to examine the boundaries of Bears Ears, first designated by then-President Barack Obama in 2016, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, designated by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Haaland, a enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, announced Wednesday that her Utah trek will include meetings “with stakeholders, tribes and elected leaders as part of the national monuments review,” according to an Interior spokesperson.

Details of Haaland’s itinerary, including exact timing and planned stops, had not been made public as of Thursday. Both supporters and opponents of national monuments hope Haaland will incorporate their side of the argument into the review.

Utah’s congressional and state leaders, who have advocated for federal legislation to set the monument boundaries instead of further executive action, welcomed Haaland’s pending visit in a joint statement last month.

“We would much prefer a legislative solution,” they wrote. “A legislative approach — if pursued with the support of the Utah delegation — would serve both the nation and our constituents. If successful, such an effort could help us end this historic cycle of disputes.”

But the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — which is made up of representatives appointed by the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni — said in a recent statement that while it is open to working with Utah leaders, “time is of the essence” not only to restore Bears Ears to the 1.35 million-acre boundaries set by Obama, but also to ultimately expand the monument to the 1.9 million acres tribal governments and other Indigenous groups proposed in 2015.

“We trust the Biden administration will carefully consider the views of our sovereign nations,” the coalition said, “and the broad public support for restoration of the Bears Ears National Monument as well as the views of the San Juan County and Grand County commissions — the two state political bodies closest to the monument.”

Local opposition to the monument was cited as a major reason for Trump’s reductions in 2017, but a federal judge’s ruling in a voting rights lawsuit has since brought in a Democratic and Native American majority to the San Juan County Commission, which has passed resolutions in support of restoring and expanding the monument boundaries.

“It’s a great honor to be visited by the first Native American Interior secretary,” said San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation.

“[We hope] to help her understand what San Juan County, Utah, means to the people here, both Native American and nonnative American,” Maryboy added, including the spiritual significance of the Bears Ears region.

Grand County, in southeastern Utah just north of Bears Ears, as well as the San Juan County town of Bluff, the Utah Navajo Commission and the Navajo Nation have all come out in support of restoring the monument. Blanding and Monticello, the two largest towns in San Juan County, have passed resolutions against altering the Bears Ears boundaries.

Elected leaders in south-central Utah, where Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is located, have remained more united in their opposition to restoring that monument.

“These are totally different situations,” said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, a Republican and rancher. “I would ask people to start focusing on these monuments separately. I know they were reduced together, but we went through a separate process, and [Trump’s Interior Department] ended up leaving a million acres inside of those boundaries [compared to the 200,000 acres left in Bears Ears].”

Pollock said he hopes to tell Haaland that the smaller Grand Staircase monument, which was reduced by about half, is a working compromise that makes more sense for tourism, multiple use and land management.

“The million acres that was taken out,” he said, “was just simply turned over to the [Bureau of Land Management’s] Kanab Field Office, the same agency in the same building, and those lands are being managed much better right now. The monument lands are being managed much better right now.

“If Deb Haaland and ... Joe Biden, with the stroke of a pen, reinstate [the monument] back to what it was,” he continued, “they’re going back to a mess, arbitrarily.”

But Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a Garfield County-based nonprofit that supports reinstating the monument, said this week that the original boundaries were drawn with input from scientists looking to protect the areas’ rich biology and paleontology as well as its numerous cultural sites.

“Eighty-five percent of Utah’s biodiversity exists within the monument, including 2,600 species of flora and over 660 species of bees,” the group wrote in a statement. “...The fully restored GSENM will stand as a symbol of our solemn vow to posterity; that as a nation, we accept the responsibility of preserving for future generations our common inheritance — an unbroken land still rich with life and promise.”

Sally Jewell and Ryan Zinke, who led Interior under Obama and Trump, respectively, both made trips to southern Utah to meet with locals about national monuments.

Maryboy and Pollock said they were waiting for more details about Haaland’s visit and whether she would travel to their counties.

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.