25 Jun, Saturday
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Utah Navajo, Elected Leaders, Urge Against Bears Ears Monument

Washington, D.C.—Local leaders and members of Utah’s Navajo Nation made a plea for a cooperative legislative effort rather than an executive order for the proposed Bears Ears National Monument Wednesday.

Speaking from the nation’s capitol, the delegation asked President Barack Obama to hold off on signing an executive order that would make the Bears Ears area in San Juan County a national monument in favor of protecting the land via Rep. Rob Bishop’s forthcoming Public Lands Initiative legislation.

Danielle Shirley, a local resident and Diné Navajo, said the area is considered sacred to her people. Were it turned into a national monument, they would be barred from doing many of the activities on the land they have done for generations.

“We have been fighting for our home for many years now and I fear our future generations will continue on this path,” she said.

Shirley said she and her sister, who have been vocal in their opposition of the proposed monument, have been barred from attending meetings hosted by environmental groups about the proposal, and alleged that some groups have been bringing in people from New Mexico and Colorado to make it appear that locals support the project.

Another Navajo, Lewis Singer, pointed to the Grand Escalante National Monument, which became a national monument during the Clinton administration. The natives in that area were told the monument would still allow them to continue doing many of the activities—wood-gathering, grazing, gathering herbs—that they had been doing previously, he said, but when it became a monument, those activities were posted as fine-able offenses. Singer said he feared the same would happen with Bears Ears if it were turned into a national monument.

Beyond being sacred ground, he said, Bears Ears is also one of the few places in the region that can support grazing and herb-growing.

Susie Philemon, also of the Navajo community, spoke about the sacred nature of the ground, as well as the centuries of mistreatment and broken promises from the federal government, and became emotional during her remarks.

“Those who understand the importance of this history are against this place becoming a national monument. This is a place of healing, of holiness, which is a retreat for our body, mind and soul,” she said. “How can we as native people trust the federal government when it gives us land only to take it back and claim it as a national monument? Native Americans have given up enough of their lands for national monuments. We are citizens, too.”

Among the six elected officials who spoke, all urged the president to withhold signing the executive order to make Bears Ears a national monument, instead pointing to Bishop’s initiative as a means of achieving higher protections on the land while still allowing native people to access their sacred ancestral lands. The fact that the initiative would be taken through the legislative wringer and require cooperative efforts to succeed was also hit on several times.

“It is clear by talking to the people in Utah and particularly the people of Southeastern Utah that the vast majority are opposed to a national monument. They don’t want it; we don’t need it. A national monument will only create animosity and division. It will not bring us together; it will only divide us and tear us apart,” said Gov. Gary Herbert. “If this is about providing some kind of additional protection, the public land initiative sponsored by Rep. Bishop is a much better way to do it.”

Rep. Chris Stewart also mentioned the Grand Escalante National Monument, saying then-President Bill Clinton “lacked the courage” to come to Utah and listen to the concerns of those who would be most affected before signing the order. Stewart said he hoped those that would be affected by Bears Ears becoming a national monument would at the very least get an opportunity to weigh in on the potentially life-changing decision.

“Knowing that we want to protect it and have a sincere desire to keep it this beautiful for our children, all we’re asking is a place at the table,” he said. “All we’re asking is that the decision isn’t made by one man to the detriment to the rest of us.”

Bishop said while co-management proposals and promises to allow natives to continue their traditional activities on the land are well-meaning, future use would be determined by land managers. He said besides being less restrictive, his initiative would put into statute those rights to guarantee them in the future.

“The solution is the public lands initiative, not a monument designation, simply because what we have in the public lands initiative was designed by these people to meet their needs, their wants, their desires. … What the Native Americans who live in Utah need to maintain their traditional and cultural needs will be in statute,” he said. “Unfortunately, a monument, even though they say the right things, is subject to the whims of future land managers. … We are proposing to do that the right way.”

Although touted by all of the elected officials as being the solution to the balance between protecting the land and preserving the Native Americans’ rights to use it, it is not a unilaterally accepted option. Singer said among some of the opponents of the national monument, the initiative is still seen as being too restrictive. However, Singer said, he believed that most of those concerns could be resolved through the course of its legislative journey.