Feds stack Bears Ears advisory group with critics of southern Utah monument

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This Dec. 28, 2016, file photo shows the two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The U.S. government is issuing draft proposals for how it would like to manage two national monuments in Utah that were significantly downsized by President Donald Trump in 2017 in a move that angered conservation and tribal groups and triggered lawsuits.

More than a year after President Donald Trump slashed southern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, the Interior Department has publicly identified the 15 people it selected for the advisory committee that will provide guidance on managing the 200,000-acre reserve in San Juan County.

Missing on the panel is anyone who championed Bears Ears’ original designation in 2016 or opposed Trump’s decision a year later to cut it by 85 percent, leaving out Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, Grand Gulch and many other places that five tribes wanted protected when they urged President Barack Obama to declare a massive monument.

Meanwhile, the panel is stacked with staunch monument foes, starting with County Commissioner Bruce Adams, former Commissioner Rebecca Benally’s son Ryan and ranchers Gail Johnson and Zeb Dalton.

The list of committee members, which the Bureau of Land Management posted Friday, came as a disappointment to two groups that lobbied for the monument and are now active in helping the public appreciate the delicate landscape, filled with centuries-old artifacts left by ancient Native Americans, in a respectful manner.

The selection appears to be “political,” said Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, the tribal group that developed the proposal that led to the monument’s designation.

“It’s so skewed toward opponents,” Noyes said. “I never thought they would go this far.”

He believes candidates with far more expertise and connection to the landscape, such as Utah Dine Bikeyah board member and Navajo medicine man Jonah Yellowman, were overlooked because of their support for the monument designation.

“The public lands involved here would be much better served by a more balanced monument advisory committee. The committee as announced lacks even a single proponent for the monument, while there are many anti-monument critics,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of Bluff-based Friends of Cedar Mesa. “That means, the BLM and the Forest Service are asking people who don’t think the monument should exist for advice on how to manage it. While those are important voices to be considered, they shouldn’t be the only ones at the table.”

The advisory committee is to reflect a “fair and balanced representation of interested stakeholders," states Obama’s monument proclamation issued nearly 2½ years ago. According to BLM spokeswoman Lisa Bryant, at least 50 people and as many as 100 applied.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office, the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM forwarded their recommendations to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, but it is not publicly known the extent to which the final selections deviated from them.

“Interior made the final selection after reviewing every application," Bryant said. "There were numerous applications in every category.”

Efforts to reach a representative of Trump’s Interior Department were not successful Monday.

The panel, whose members represent 11 interest groups ranging from recreation to archaeology, is to meet two to four times a year. Its first meeting will be set soon, according to Bryant. The new members’ terms expire at varying times, in one, two or three years, so that future members’ terms are staggered.

At the time of the committee nominations, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both pro-monument activists and Navajo tribal members, had yet to be seated on the San Juan County Commission, so they were not considered for the spot reserved for a “local elected official,” according to Bryant. Adams, a Monticello rancher and educator, was running for re-election to a seat he has held for years.

Although Obama designated the monument at the behest of five tribes to protect sacred sites and the region’s extensive archaeological resources, American Indians hold none of the seats on the committee except for the two designated for “tribal concerns.”

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Utah Tribal Leaders Association, recommended seven Native Americans, including Grayeyes; Kevin Madalena, a paleontologist from the Pueblo of Jemez, N.M.; rancher Malcolm Lehi, who was a Ute Mountain Ute council member when the monument was designated; and Jonah Yellowman and Tara Benally, both Navajos living in Utah.

“They are important people within our Native communities, who possess expertise and specialized skills and direct ties to Bears Ears National Monument,” Steele, who also heads the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation, wrote in his Oct. 1 nomination letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Bernhardt, Zinke’s successor, appointed none of Steele’s picks. Instead he selected monument opponents to fill the two tribal seats: Ryan Benally and Alfred Ben, vice president of a Navajo group called Descendants of K’aayelli and elected officer of the Navajo Nation’s Aneth chapter.

Another committee member, Gail Johnson, holds a grazing allotment that was entirely within the original monument. Johnson and her husband, Sandy, are seeking to intervene in the lawsuits filed by tribal, science and conservation groups that hope to invalidate Trump’s move to reduce the monument. Along with various hunting groups, the Johnsons filed papers with the court to participate in the suits, arguing the monument as originally designated would put them out of business.

Holding the seat representing “conservation” interests is Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation. Also selected were Blanding resident Jami Bayles, founder of the group Stewards of San Juan, and San Juan County Administrator Kelly Pehrson.

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