Blanding • Early Thursday morning — before closed meetings with Utah leaders, before the press questions and the shouting protesters — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined tribal leaders on the landscape near Bears Ears National Monument for a moment of reflection and prayer.
“It was a beautiful gathering of tribal leaders to start off the day right,” said Angelo Baca, a Hopi/Diné man from San Juan County who was part of the group.
“From the Indigenous perspective, how you start off the day is with gratitude,” continued Baca, cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah. “[Haaland] said she felt right at home.”
It was likely one of the few quiet moments Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American in a president’s Cabinet, would have on her three-day whirlwind tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southern Utah, where she is meeting with elected officials, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, as well as the tribal leaders and numerous other stakeholders.
“I wish I could spend two weeks here. I really do,” Haaland told reporters Thursday outside a Blanding museum stocked with thousands of cultural artifacts gathered from lands that became Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama created a 1.3 million-acre monument at the request of five Native American tribes.
Her visit this week was prompted by President Joe Biden’s executive order in January that opened a review of the boundaries of both monuments, which were reduced by roughly 2 million total acres by then-President Donald Trump in 2017. Biden is considering the restoration of the monuments, both of which are filled with cultural sites and scientific treasures.
“It’s important that the president get this right,” Haaland said, adding that the primary purpose of her visit is to gather a wide variety of viewpoints to submit to Biden ahead of his decision.
“My message is really very simple,” she said. “I’m here to listen, I’m here to learn. I know that decisions about public lands are incredibly impactful to the people who live nearby and not just to us, not just to the folks who were here today, but for generations to come. It’s our obligation to make sure that we protect lands for future generations, so they can have the same experiences that the governor and I have experienced today.”
Dueling protests, positions over Bears Ears monument
A small band of protesters held signs at the entrance to the museum reading, “No monument,” and tense shouting matches broke out several times with a separate group that had shown up to support the designation. But Thursday’s event was far more restricted — and far more muted — than a 2016 public meeting about Bears Ears in Bluff that drew thousands of people, or the 2017 protests in Salt Lake City, where Trump reduced the monuments and demonstrators had to be cleared from the streets by police in riot gear.
Sharing the podium with Haaland, Utah’s political leaders called on Biden not to make a unilateral decision, but rather to go through Congress to craft a lasting solution, one that would put an end to the “pingponging” and legal battles that have dominated Utah’s monument debates.
“Pingponging is probably the wrong word because pingpong is fun,” Cox said. “There’s nothing fun about what we’ve been arguing about over the past decade. Can we find the solutions? I think there is an opportunity for that, to provide the resources that are needed. But all of those things can only be done through legislation. It can’t be done through an executive order. But that’s hard. That’s hard work. If it was easy, we would have done it already.”
Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, told The Salt Lake Tribune he is disappointed that the courts still haven’t ruled on whether Trump had the authority to reduce the monuments under the Antiquities Act. Such a move hadn’t been attempted on a similar scale by previous presidents. If the courts decide that presidents are allowed only to create, not reduce, monuments, the pingponging issue would be less of a concern.
Tenakhongva, who is a party to the lawsuit against Trump, said the federal judge overseeing the case “had three years to rule, but nothing happened. Was [Trump] within the confines of the law... or did he do something outside of his authority? That’s a big question.”
Although he hoped Biden would expand Bears Ears on his first day in office, Tenakhongva is pleased Haaland shares the same ancestral ties to the Bears Ears landscape as members of the five tribes in the inter-tribal coalition: the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe.
“Not only is she the first Native American woman to be sitting in such a high position,” Tenakhongva said, “but the feeling that I got from her was that she is Puebloan and she seems to comprehend and understand a lot of the cultural issues of how we Pueblo people — nations of Hopi and Zuni and other Pueblo nations — affiliate ourselves really strongly with the Bears Ears [and surrounding areas]. This whole region was very heavily populated by our people back in the day.”
Size matters in monument debate
On Wednesday and Thursday, Haaland visited some of those cultural sites, including the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel outside of Bluff — which was encompassed by Obama’s monument designation and removed a year later by Trump.
“Yesterday and today, I spent time on the land,” Haaland said Thursday. “I looked at pictographs, vistas that take your breath away. I have spoken with other folks who have said this is an extremely special place.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told The Tribune that he would be advocating for a larger monument in his meetings with Haaland.
Nez said the Navajo Nation is maintaining its long-held position that Biden should not only restore Bears Ears to the 1.3 million acres designated in 2016 but also expand it to the 1.9 million acres backed by the Navajo government and other member nations of the inter-tribal coalition.
That larger boundary, Nez said, “is what should be put on the table for discussion.”
Romney, who supports a legislative option for protecting the area as opposed to a presidential proclamation, told reporters Thursday it is too soon to announce the number of acres that might be included in a bill he would back.
“We want to look to the tribal leaders to help us make that decision,” Romney said.
“There’s been a lot of energy and passion around this piece of property here and also Grand Staircase,” he said, “a lot of energy and angst on the part of the people here, whether Native Americans or others that have moved here more recently. The president has ... an opportunity to bring people together and to create more unity.”
Should Biden “take a purely political course,” however, and restore the monuments by his executive authority under the Antiquities Act, Romney warned “one side would be happy and the other side would be mad, and then we go from having a permanent solution to a temporary one, and we go from uniting the American people to dividing us.”
Multiple monument supporters, including San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, signaled they would be open to legislation that would cement the boundaries but said they would like to see Biden, for now, restore the monument.
[Read about how a previous San Juan County Commission employed lobbyists in an effort to rescind or reduce Bears Ears National Monument.]
Maryboy, a member of the Navajo Nation who previously served on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, said that there has already been more than a decade of discussions on the topic of what the boundaries should look like.
Anyone saying the monument was rushed in 2016 is offering up “a bunch of baloney,” Maryboy said, adding that Utah Diné Bikéyah and the tribal coalition spent considerable time negotiating potential legislation under an effort led by recently retired Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
“I would like to have the monument restored to the original size or maybe even more,” Maryboy said, “1.9 [million acres] would be good.”
Haaland’s review of Grand Staircase-Escalante will be even more rushed than her Bears Ears visit. Although the full details of her itinerary haven’t been released, a press advisory reported she would be in Kane County for part of Friday to see Grand Staircase and “hold additional meetings with stakeholders representing a wide array of views, including elected officials, ranchers, conservation organizations, local business owners and Indigenous leaders.” Those meetings were expected to be closed.
— Tribune reporters Matt Canham and Brian Maffly contributed to this story.
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.