Utah lawmakers launch bipartisan effort to create a visitors center at Bears Ears monument

Visitation has increased in the area by 72.7% and center would help “direct and educate” tourists.

(Leah Hogsten | Salt Lake Tribune) Comb Ridge, located within the Bears Ears National Monument, June 26, 2020.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, says he was “offended” when then-President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument in a “king-like fashion” in 2016. And though he was glad to see former President Donald Trump later reduce its size, he would still like to see the monument rescinded altogether.

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, on the other hand, “strongly supports” the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument to its original boundaries — something that appears increasingly likely under now-President Joe Biden.

“Clearly,” Owens said Monday, “there’s going to be a lot that Rep. Lyman and I disagree on.”

But despite their differences, this “politically odd couple,” as Owens described them, came across the aisle Monday to unveil legislation they both agree on: a bill that would create a task force to explore the creation of a visitor center in the Bears Ears area.

Data from Utah State University’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism shows that visitation has increased in the Bears Ears area by 72.7% in the three years following the monument’s creation, and both lawmakers feel there needs to be a facility “to help direct and educate” the increased numbers of tourists, Lyman said.

The bill has not been numbered and is not yet publicly available, but a copy shared with reporters on Monday shows it would create an eight-member committee with the purpose of studying and making recommendations to the state Legislature about the need for a visitor center at Bears Ears.

The committee would be tasked with exploring potential locations, purposes and sources of funding, as well as looking into whether a visitor center would increase visitation to the area and whether it could function “as a repository of traditional knowledge and practices.”

Owens said at a news conference Monday that the legislation would give control of decisions around the visitor center to the five Native American tribes listed in the bill: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute. The group would be required to hold at least one public hearing on the issue and to make recommendations about the visitor center to the Legislature by no later than November.

The two lawmakers are in communication with those tribes, which Owens said are “studying it and considering it.”

“Our hope is that both political parties can come together on this project to work with the tribes, our state government and federal government to build a facility that’s a credit to the area, the tribes and to the whole state,” he said.

Lyman also added that the bill — which is neutral on the issue of whether Bears Ears should or should not be a monument — is “not an effort for the state Legislature to control the narrative on this” but is a “gesture on the part of the state Legislature to do what we can to support the tribes.”

Utah Diné Bikéyah Executive Director Woody Lee expressed support for the legislation in a news release, noting its bipartisan nature and the inclusion of tribal leadership as part of the effort.

“We look forward to working with legislators, Tribal leaders, and stakeholders on this important effort,” he said.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, which opened a Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff in 2017, said in an email Monday that he’s also supportive of conversations about ways to address visitor management issues in the area in a positive and collaborative way.

The group stepped in initially knowing that there likely wouldn’t be a dedicated government funded visitor center “for many years.” Today, Ewing said unmanaged visitor impacts remain “the number one threat to the cultural resources at Bears Ears” and there still aren’t even signs on the ground informing people they’ve entered the monument.

“So our Center will be a valuable and important resource for visitor education for a good while,” he said. “However, we’ve always seen our grassroots visitor center as a stopgap measure that ideally would give way to a Tribally-led effort with secure, ongoing funding. There’s also a big need for collaboration between Tribes, local governments, federal land managers, businesses and non-profits to have a unified comprehensive strategy for visitor management and education.”

He said Friends of Cedar Mesa appreciates that the task force would be centered around tribal leadership and hoped that the process would yield “a roadmap for collaboration going forward.”

The restoration of Bears Ears seems likely after Biden recently opened a 60-day review to look into Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by 2 million acres. As part of that executive order, he’s directed the Interior Secretary, a post likely to be filled by Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, to submit findings and recommendations for moving forward.

The effort has the support of the Grand County and San Juan County Commissions, both of which have sent letters requesting restoration of the monuments in recent weeks, along with the Utah Navajo Commission.

But Utah’s entire all-Republican congressional delegation and state elected leaders were quick to oppose Biden’s order for a monument review after it was announced last month.

And not all local leaders are in support of it. Blanding and Monticello, San Juan’s two biggest towns, passed a joint resolution against reinstating the boundaries of Bears Ears in December. They say the monument was created without proper “local input and support” in 2016 and question that the majority of county residents support it, alleging that the commission’s resolution was “not authored locally but by entities outside San Juan County.”

While there are arguments about what would be best for the land moving forward, there is no disputing that the Antiquities Act empowers Biden to restore either monument, with or without the collaborative process Utah leaders have advocated for in recent weeks.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) While Utah's Republican leaders are united in opposing President Joe Biden using the Antiquities Act to once again expand the Bears Ears National Monument, residents are deeply divided over the expected action.