Mormon leaders in Blanding urge members to push feds for group access to pioneer site within Bears Ears

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The two buttes that make up the namesake for the Bears Ears National Monument reveal the vast landscape surrounding them as part of the 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah protected by President Barack Obama. As seen on Friday June 9, 2017.

In an unusual move, Mormon church leaders in Blanding have asked their members to weigh in on the planning process for the controversial Bears Ears monument designation because they want access to an environmentally sensitive site once visited by pioneers.

In a letter sent last week, the local presidency encouraged congregants to write in during the Bureau of Land Management’s open comment period — which ends April 11 — to explain how visiting the area benefits “you and your heritage and culture” before the agency sets rules for land use.

Just inside the southern edge of the now-reduced Bears Ears area, in the 129,980-acre sliver called Shash Jaa National Monument carved out by President Donald Trump, there’s a steep sandstone wall and a large sign. “To ascend the ridge,” it reads, “the pioneers labored for days on a wagon road here, which they named San Juan Hill.”

The obstacle was near the end of the long trek for the 220 Mormons, who set off from Escalante in the winter of 1879 and traveled the since-named Hole in the Rock trail, feeling “called” to settle in southeastern Utah. And it’s a spot where many in the faith return today to see what their ancestors experienced and to reflect on their trials.

“It’s just incredibly important. I loved growing up here because of the heritage,” said Alon Pugh, who serves as the Blanding stake president, overseeing the Mormon congregations in the area. “I don’t want to lose that. I’m so afraid that we will lose that.”

Specifically, the church leaders are seeking an exemption to how many people can visit San Juan Hill at a time. They’d like to bring 300 young adults to the area on a trek, where the members dress up like pioneers and re-enact the journey with handcarts as part of a popular religious exercise.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune File Photo) Montell Seely, his daughter Janell and son Mark make their way down Emigration Canyon as they completed their trek from winter quarters during the 1997 re-enactment trek to Utah.

Currently, the BLM limits group sizes to 12 people to protect the fragile desert ecosystem.

“We advocate for our local youth groups to be able to have handcart access from the highway down to San Juan Hill,” reads the letter from the local leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It then urges members to submit “substantive comments” on how the trip would “provide meaningful opportunities” and “help our local communities.”

“What are the benefits of allowing youth treks to have access to San Juan Hill?” it prompts with a link to the BLM site.

Rep. John Curtis, who is Mormon and whose expansive 3rd Congressional District includes Shash Jaa (and the separate monument Trump formed at Indian Creek), has visited the 4,642-foot hill several times. The Utah Republican said he’s “receptive” to the concerns.

“I want to make sure that we are thoughtful about something that’s been very important to people in the LDS community for many years,” he said.

The group of pioneers, known as the San Juan Expedition, spent six months traveling a circuitous route across Garfield and San Juan counties though remote land. They cut through a narrow canyon, lowered 80 wagons down to the Colorado River and crossed unforgiving territory with sandstone canyons, mesas and ridges. The group settled in Bluff.

Utah lawmakers have proposed making the 140-mile trail into a state park. That means federal limits on groups could be lifted.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance opposes easing the restrictions.

In 2016, the conservation organization, the BLM and the Hole in the Rock Foundation (a nonprofit that leads expeditions along the trail and to San Juan Hill) reached an agreement to limit groups to 12 for those without permits and up to 60 for those with them — though, even then, it’s required that the members split into smaller, staggered sets to walk through the sensitive landscape. That’s already a lot of foot traffic in a federally-designated area of critical environmental concern, said SUWA’s wildlands program director Neal Clark.

“We’re always concerned about impacts to natural and cultural resources with large groups,” he said.

The rules complicate operations on public lands for the Hole in the Rock Foundation, said its president Lynn Stevens, but he intends to continue complying with the agreement. The Blanding stake has not booked its trek through the nonprofit’s services.

“The [regulations] are pretty difficult for anyone to deal with who has 200 or 300 kids coming,” said Stevens, whose grandparents were among the pioneers on the 1879 trek.

He understands the land is sacred to the American Indian tribes that fought for the monument designation. He wants people to understand that Mormons, too, have ancestral ties and hope to ensure access.

Pugh went on a church-led trek to San Juan Hill a decade ago and said, “We took every step that we could to try to make sure that we were being good to the land, that we weren’t destructive in any way.” Members should comment to the BLM, he said, not to criticize or pick a fight but to show the agency how spiritually significant the site is to them.

This year, the Blanding stake will not visit the spot. The group got permits through the U.S. Forest Service to camp near the buttes that give Bears Ears its name.

In the future, if the rules change — and Pugh is confident they will — a group of the church’s young members will again hike the same hill the Mormon pioneers did, share their stories and “feel the conviction of what it means to be able to go through hard things in life and keep going.”

“We feel the same responsibility that everyone else in the country feels when they come through and see how beautiful it is,” he said. “But we want to be able to go and have these kinds of experiences that help us to not forget our past.”