Utah quietly tells feds: Trim Bears Ears monument by 90 percent

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hikes along the Butler Wash Indian Ruin trail alongside Utah Gov. Gary Herbert during a tour of the Bears Ears National Monument on Monday, May 8, 2017.

If maps Utah has submitted to the Interior Department are a guide, Bears Ears National Monument will be drastically cut in size.  

The state’s vision, shared with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is to shrink Bears Ears to one-tenth its current 1.35 million acres, scaling the southeastern Utah monument down to about 120,000 acres surrounding Mule and Arch canyons west of Blanding, according to maps and other documents prepared by Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through records requests.

With the Trump administration’s final decision on Bears Ears and 26 other monuments still pending, Herbert’s top public-lands lawyer argues the state’s proposal — which would carve out archaeologically rich Cedar Mesa and Elk Ridge and other key features — will do more to preserve the region’s countless archaeological sites and ensure the sanctity of its scenic and fragile lands.

But Utah’s plan was immediately panned by Native American leaders, who say it disregards the wishes of the tribes that sought the monument in the first place.

The state’s proposal “demonstrates their failure to listen to the concerns of our people who have lobbied and fought for over 80 years for this designation,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said Friday.

“Now that we finally have achieved that, we want to keep the designation as it is,” Begaye said. “We are asking President Trump and his administration to support our position. It is unfortunate the state and [San Juan] County do not respect the views of their citizens and neighbors.”

Added Willie Grayeyes, a Utah Navajo who chairs Utah Diné Bikéyah, created to protect Bears Ears: “We are Utah citizens and Americans too, yet our traditional wisdom and our ancestral ties seem not to matter.”

‘A thoughtful, careful’ plan

State officials, however, say tribal wisdom matters a great deal and their concerns played a prominent role in crafting the state’s Bears Ears alternative, which could serve as the basis for Zinke’s still-undisclosed recommendations for the controversial monument designated last December by President Barack Obama.

Thousands of ancient Native American sites are embedded in the canyon-cleaved landscape spanning Cedar Mesa, Grand Gulch, White Canyon, Dark Canyon and Elk Ridge — so many that their full extent will probably never be known. 

According to maps developed by the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, only 9.2 percent of the monument has been inventoried, mostly lands east of Comb Wash and along Elk Ridge. The office has records for more than 9,000 known Native American sites and historic structures.The greatest densities have been recorded near the head of Arch Canyon, within the state’s monument proposal, and farther south along Comb Ridge.

According to state Assistant Attorney General Tony Rampton, studies show the most serious threat to archaeological sites, especially on the Colorado Plateau, is uncontrolled visitation and access. National monument status throws down the welcome mat to the world, Rampton said, but does nothing to prevent damage to the area’s ancient dwelling, granaries, middens, rock art panels and other cultural treasures that could happen if tourists flock to that corner of San Juan County.

The Utah plan submitted to Interior is “a thoughtful, careful way for structuring a Bears Ears monument that will actually accomplish what people want to have happen out there, which is to protect the Native American sites, to protect traditional Native American uses and to preserve things as much as possible as they are and have been for 700 years,” Rampton said.

“This place is as it is because it has been left alone and a monument is not leaving this place alone,” he said. “It is going to change it dramatically.”

Utah’s vision also includes greater management authority for the tribes and beefed up enforcement of federal laws that protect archaeological resources, while providing monument visitors with a highly regulated experience on par with what they get at Mesa Verde National Park.

Rampton described a meeting with a 93-year-old Navajo woman from Aneth who had deep concerns about a massive monument overlaying an area her family has used for generations to hunt and gather firewood and herbs.

“Their concern is the more people come the more regulations there will be. Their Native American traditions are going to be chipped away and chipped away and that threatens them,” Rampton said.

What size is ‘right sized’?

Three weeks ago, Zinke completed his 120-day review of 27 large monuments, but his recommendations to President Donald Trump remain under wraps. An Interior spokeswoman declined last week to comment on the review’s status or Utah’s Bears Ears plan.

Zinke has said he is recommending that none of the 27 monuments be revoked, but he has called for reductions to a “handful” — believed to include Bears Ears and Utah‘s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The two southern Utah monuments are among the largest in the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Landscape System.

Also obtained by The Tribune was San Juan County’s idea for monument boundaries, which focuses on different terrain than the state plan, though both include the iconic Bears Ears Buttes. The county’s 422,000-acre proposal for Bears Ears is anchored by Cedar Mesa, covering the southern third of the current monument and overlapping with the state’s redrawn boundaries along State Route 95.

Dated Feb. 28, however, the county’s map was developed two months prior to Zinke’s monuments review and reportedly may not reflect the county’s current thinking. San Juan County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams did not respond to a request for comment.

While more sweeping than San Juan County’s initial ideas for Bears Ears, Utah’s proposal to Interior is not as drastic as a resolution passed earlier this year by the state Legislature and signed by Herbert, which calls for the monument to be erased entirely. But Utah’s vision still seeks a 90-percent reduction and, if enacted, is likely to be challenged in court by the tribes that sought the monument.

Legal fight brewing

“The president does not have authority to revoke or modify Bears Ears, and we would move quickly to have any action declared unlawful,” said Matt Campbell, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, a Colorado-based non-profit representing the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.

But at his monthly news conference Thursday, Herbert said the tribes could be litigating against their own best interests, especially if a monument results in unwelcome visitation and Congress acts to give tribes a much higher level of management authority than is provided in Obama’s proclamation.

“Archaeologists tell us the biggest thing we need to have for protection is less people going to these sites, yet a monument attracts people to go to the sites,” Herbert told reporters. “It’s counterproductive so I think we can come together on a common-sense approach.” 

The state’s proposal includes pieces of Manti-La Sal National Forest where Bears Ears Buttes rise off Elk Ridge. It extends east across Mule Canyon, home to the popular House on Fire ruin, and ends at another set of famous ruins at Butler Wash. All these sites happen to be among the few places Zinke visited during his May tour of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.

Monument opponents found a sympathetic ear in Zinke, who drew criticism during his Utah visit for declining to meet with tribal supporters of the monument. And in his preliminary report of June 10, Zinke called for Bears Ears to be “ right sized,” concluding its vast span exceeds the scope of the Antiquities Act, which requires monuments be confined to the smallest areas possible.

That report came out right after Utah officials provided Interior with their proposed Bear Ears maps. The state’s plan also calls for a national recreation area for Indian Creek, the monument’s northeast extension bordering Canyonlands National Park. The world renown rock-climbing mecca would be administered by the National Park Service, though such a move would require action by Congress.

Utah also proposes a mineral withdrawal for much of the southern half of Bears Ears, which would rule out mining and other extraction, but that raises questions about the state‘s intentions for the monument’s northern half.

In 2015, the Legislature designated the “San Juan Energy Zone“, which covers much of what became Bears Ears the following year, because it contains “abundant world-class deposits” of mineral wealth. 

Tribal officials remain unhappy the state did not consult them on any of its suggestions to Interior, casting the move as a slight to their sovereignty.

“Bears Ears National Monument was created through the government to government relationship that Tribes have with the United States. Now it appears that the monument is being undone while ignoring that relationship,” said Carleton Bowekaty, co-chairman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Bowekaty is the Zuni Pueblo’s representative on the five-member Bears Ears Commission, empaneled under Obama’s proclamation giving five tribes a special advisory role in monument management. The Interior Department has put all management planning on hold while uncertainty over monument boundaries remains unresolved.

— Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke and reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this article.

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