With National Monuments Under Review, Bears Ears Is Focus Of Fierce Debate | KERA News

With National Monuments Under Review, Bears Ears Is Focus Of Fierce Debate

May 5, 2017
Originally published on May 5, 2017 7:13 pm

A lot of the anger over federal public land in rural Utah today can be traced back to a windy, gray day in Arizona in September 1996. At the Grand Canyon, President Bill Clinton formally designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, more than 100 miles away.

"On this remarkable site, God's handiwork is everywhere in the natural beauty of the Escalante Canyons," he said.

But Clinton didn't set foot in Utah. The planning for the monument was largely done in secret, and state leaders had little warning it was coming.

Now, nearly 21 years later, mistrust toward the federal government persists, in the tightknit, mostly Mormon town of Blanding, Utah. Folks can't help but draw a parallel to how President Barack Obama's sweeping Bears Ears National Monument ended up in their backyard.

"I don't understand how it would protect the land when you're inviting thousands of footprints in," says Laura O'Donnell.

O'Donnell, who works at Blanding's modest visitor center, says she is uncomfortable with her town suddenly being the flashpoint in the heated debate over the future of federal public lands.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is keeping a promise to travel into rural Utah beginning this weekend to hear from locals who live around the new 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears monument and the established 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase monument to the west. The Trump administration has launched a 45-day review over whether large national monuments like these that protect federal land should be rescinded or shrunk.

In Blanding, Zinke's visit is highly anticipated. Here, opposition to the monument runs deeper than the usual anxieties in sagebrush country about adding more protections to public land that would restrict future mining and other development.

"Monuments should be an honor to an area, and we feel like this one is nothing but a punishment," says Jami Bayles, who founded a group called the Stewards of San Juan County.

From her office at a small college, you can see the twin Bears Ears buttes framing the distant horizon out on the vast Cedar Mesa west of town. While not as visually dramatic as the famous national parks nearby, the area is dense with cliff dwellings and ancient artifacts.

Bayles and many of her neighbors felt offended when the federal government announced additional protections under a new monument because they felt it sent a message that the land was being threatened.

"We keep that place pristine, we keep it clean, we check on it all the time," Bayles says. "I guess my argument is, 'OK, yeah, it belongs to everybody, but not everybody has been taking care of it.' "

Bayles says that the monument is being pushed by extreme, out-of-state environmentalists and that her side has struggled to be heard.

There are deep pockets behind the campaign to protect Bears Ears.

San Juan County is about 50 percent Native American. A short drive down the road, on the Navajo Nation Reservation, tribal leaders say it's a lie for people in Blanding to argue that the monument is being pushed on them from the outside.

"For them to be here for 130 years, they should at least understand the Native Americans now," says Kenneth Maryboy, a chapter president.

Native Americans from around the Four Corners region, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, who back the new monument are open about the fact that they're getting outside help and money because they didn't have a voice before, according to interviews with tribal leaders. Many tribes in the region have officially come out in support of the monument, though not all.

Maryboy was involved with the first talks with Utah's congressional delegation almost a decade ago about protecting Bears Ears as a National Conservation Area. They broke down last year, then came Obama's executive order.

"Our gripe and our fight is to preserve what's there, the Native American artifacts, the antiquities and all the shrines and the ruins," Maryboy says.

The sacred burial grounds of the famous Navajo leader Manuelito are included in the new monument. Maryboy sees the monument as crucial to protecting these antiquities from vandalism and looting, a historical problem in San Juan County.

"The San Juan County good ol' boys don't want to see this happen," says Maryboy. "They adamantly, openly said, 'This is our land. The damn Navajos need to go back to the reservation.' "

It's not an overstatement to say that Zinke will see deep tension and polarization when he arrives at Bears Ears late this weekend for a two-day tour.

Tribes here point to a history of broken promises with the U.S. government. If the Trump administration moves to abolish Bears Ears, it's not hard to imagine a Standing Rock-inspired protest here. On the other hand, if the monument stays intact, some wonder whether the militias that support rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons would arrive in San Juan County.

Back in Blanding, some locals like Ferd Johnson are floating a compromise. Why not just shrink the monument and protect the cliff dwellings and other antiquities themselves, they say.

"All these environmentalists, these Navajos, Hopis and the other Indians didn't even know where the Bears Ears was," Johnson says. "Why is it so sacred if they don't even know where it is?"

The tribes dispute this. Some have already signaled they'll sue if, after Zinke's Utah trip, the Trump administration moves to rescind Bears Ears.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The new interior secretary is keeping a promise to travel to the rural West and talk to people who are concerned about large national monuments that protect federal public land. Ryan Zinke's first stop is the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. It's on land considered sacred to Native Americans. We're going to spend some time there now to learn why local opposition to it is so fierce. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A lot of the anger over federal public land in rural Utah today can be traced back to a windy, gray day in Arizona in September of 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: On this remarkable site, God's handiwork is everywhere in the natural beauty of the Escalante Canyons and in the...

SIEGLER: This is President Bill Clinton designating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah at a ceremony 150 miles away at the Grand Canyon.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SIEGLER: But Clinton didn't even set foot in Utah that day. The planning for the monument was largely done in secret, and state leaders got virtually no heads up that it was coming. Twenty-one years later, mistrust toward the federal government persists in the tight-knit, mostly Mormon town of Blanding, Utah. Folks can't help but draw a parallel to how the sweeping Bears Ears monument ended up in their backyard.

LAURA O'DONNELL: I don't understand how it would protect the land when you're inviting thousands of footprints in that - to people that it was unknown before. I mean they didn't - had no clue about this area.

SIEGLER: At Blanding's visitor center, Laura O'Donnell is uncomfortable that her home is suddenly the flashpoint in the environmental movement.

O'DONNELL: I like it the way it is. We've got our farmers, our ranchers. We've got the largest school district right here in Blanding - no.

SIEGLER: This is how deep the opposition runs - that even the woman working the tourist center doesn't want a new monument that could attract more tourists. This latest battle in sagebrush country goes a lot further than the usual anxieties about a new monument restricting mining or other development. Longtime locals like Jami Bayles put it this way. People were offended when the government came in and declared that Bears Ears is under threat.

JAMI BAYLES: We keep that place pristine. We keep it clean. We keep - you know, we check on it all the time. And so I guess my argument is, OK, yeah, it belongs to everybody, but not everybody has been taking care of it.

SIEGLER: Bayles organized her neighbors into a group called San Juan Stewards. From her office at a small college, you can see the twin Bears Ears buttes out on the vast Cedar Mesa west of town. While not as visually dramatic as the famous national parks nearby, the area is dense with cliff dwellings and ancient artifacts, and the protected monument is huge - 1.3 million acres.

BAYLES: Monuments should be an honor to an area, and we feel like this one is nothing but a punishment.

SIEGLER: Bayles says the monument is being pushed by extreme out-of-state environmentalists. Now, there are deep pockets behind the protect Bears Ears campaign - Hollywood actors, outdoor retail giants like Patagonia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

SIEGLER: But San Juan County is 50 percent Native American. And 30 miles down the road on the Navajo reservation, tribal leaders say it's a lie for people in Blanding to argue that the monument is being pushed on them from the outside.

KENNETH MARYBOY: For them to be here for 130 years, they should at least understand the Native Americans now.

SIEGLER: Kenneth Maryboy, a chapter president for the Navajo Nation, says tribes around the Four Corners welcomed the outside money and help because they didn't have a voice before. Maryboy was part of the original talks to protect Bears Ears with Utah's congressional delegation that began nearly a decade ago. They broke down last year.

MARYBOY: Our gripe and our fight is to preserve what's there - the Native American artifacts, the antiquities and all the shrines and the ruins.

SIEGLER: Maryboy says bringing national monument status to Bears Ears will help protect those antiquities from vandalism. He says it could also guard against looting, a historical problem here.

MARYBOY: The San Juan County good old boys don't want to see this happen. They adamantly, openly said, this is our land; the damn Navajos need to go back to the reservation.

SIEGLER: There is a lot at stake ahead of Secretary Zinke's visit. Tribes point to a history of broken promises. And if the Trump administration moves to abolish Bears Ears, you could see this turning into the next Standing Rock protest. Or on the other side, if the monument stays as is, do the anti-government militias show up?

Back near Blanding, I met Ferd Johnson for a tour of some of this area's famous rugged canyon country. We're riding ATVs. Ferd's retired, but he's long guided tourists in and out of what's now the monument.

FERD JOHNSON: The Bears Ears - that's a beauty out there. It's - it is really nice.

SIEGLER: Johnson has a compromise. He says, why not just shrink the monument and just protect the cliff dwellings and the artifacts themselves?

JOHNSON: All these environmentalists, these Navajos, Hopis and the other Indians didn't even know where the Bears Ears was, and they'd still come and ask, where is it? (Laughter) Why is it so sacred if they don't even know where it is?

SIEGLER: The tribes dispute this. Some have already signaled they'll sue if after Secretary Zinke's Utah trip the administration moves to rescind any or all of Bears Ears. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, in southeast Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.