Utahns gather at State Capitol to protest Attorney General’s lawsuit against Bears Ears National Monument restoration

Around 100 people gathered in the Capitol’s rotunda with speakers explaining the importance of the national monument.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protestors gathered at the Utah State Capitol rotunda on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, to protest the state's lawsuit over the Bears Ears National Monument restoration.

A chorus of voices echoed through the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol Thursday night, where around 100 Utahns sang “People Gonna Rise Like the Water” to protest a potential lawsuit from the state over the expansion of the Bears Ears National Monument.

In October, President Joe Biden returned 2 million acres to Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante, which former President Donald Trump had removed from the monument. Less than two weeks later, Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a request for proposals for a legal team to challenge Biden’s order.

“Utah has repeatedly sought a legislative solution that would both ensure protection of the State’s magnificent landscapes while simultaneously creating thoughtful and strategic management practices,” Reyes said in a statement. “Unfortunately, President Biden’s actions have foreclosed a collaborative process, created more uncertainty, and prolonged the tug-of-war over these lands.”

Utahns who attended Thursday night’s protest say a lawsuit is a waste of money and called on lawmakers to protect the land by allowing it to remain a national park.

“Our state officials want to stay on the path that Trump took, and continue to disrespect the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe,” said Brooke Clarkson, co-editor of the book “New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, and Climate Crisis.”

The Legislature and San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located, have already spent millions of dollars in other legal fights over public lands with little to show for these efforts.

Many who spoke at the event argued that money would be better spent elsewhere, like on basic infrastructure for a Navajo community a little over an hour away from Bears Ears.

“They want to see their Christmas tree light up, but they don’t have any electricity,” said Davis Filfred, Board Chairman for the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that supports Indigenous communities protecting their ancestral lands.

“They want to use their commode just like we all do. They don’t have that luxury. All this money could go to good use — but no, they want to play this nonsense going back to the court.”

Filfred said Indigenous people welcome visitors to the national monument, but they want the area to stay the same as it was — for it to stay wild with the elk, deer and other wildlife that call the area home — so that their children and grandchildren for generations to come can witness the beautiful lands that some Utah lawmakers would see destroyed.

Utahns who came to the event echoed the same sentiments, raising signs that read “Protect Bears Ears” and “Protect Wild Utah.” Some attendees wore paper headbands with cartoon Bears Ears drawn on.

Olivia Juarez, a community organizer at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, was amazed by the turnout of the Thursday night event. She said the crowd showed people want to support these national monuments and are tired of the “same-old very predictable shtick” coming from the state.

“I don’t like having to say that we are here again,” Juarez said. “Because time and time again, Utahns have shown that we really care about these landscapes and that they’re essential to having futures in Utah.”

Juarez urged attendees to contact their representatives and ask them not to support the lawsuit. She said a number had been set up where individuals can text “Utah Monuments” to 52886 to get a link to send an email to Gov. Spencer Cox and the attorney general to stop the suit.