Emotions run high over monument designation in Utah

Battle lines over a proposed Bears Ears monument are blurred, dividing tribes and towns.

 

It’s only 10 a.m. on a mid-July morning, yet the mercury in Bluff, Utah, has already topped 80 degrees, and the folks milling around the local community center seek refuge in the rare shady areas. 

A row of shiny SUVs with federal government and state or county law enforcement plates lines the eastern side of the dusty, overgrown ball field that clearly hasn’t seen a ball game in quite some time. Brightly colored, hand-drawn signs jut up from the opposite fence like corn from a dryland field: “National Monument, Dooda, Dooda,” reads a yellow one, repeating the Navajo word for “no.” “PROTECT,” proclaims another, above a drawing of a bear’s head. 

Two ravens chatter on a fence near Bluff, Utah, with the Bears Ears in the background.
Jonathan Thompson

The buzz is in anticipation of a July 16 public hearing on a proposal from five regional tribes for a Bears Ears national monument here, intended to up protections on 1.9 million acres of federally managed canyons and mesas, land that is archaeologically rich and considered sacred to many. For three-and-a-half hours, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, flanked by other top Obama administration officials, will listen to comments in favor of a monument, against it, and everything in between. 

As the line to get into the hearing grows, opinions are already being bandied about. It soon becomes clear that the issue's battle lines are blurry. This is not a simple matter of Native Americans versus Anglos, rural locals versus urban outsiders, nor greens versus ranchers, miners and sagebrush rebels. Nor is this a repeat of the 1996 designation by President Bill Clinton of an equally vast swath of land west of here, now known as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a designation that continues to inspire bitterness among southern Utahns. The run-up to that proclamation included no public hearings like this one, nor were tribes at all involved. 

Today’s crowd contains as many brown faces as it does white ones, a refreshing change from other such gatherings in the past. The land in question is an important part of contemporary Ute and Navajo history, and members of those tribes continue to use it for wood-, herb- and piñon-gathering. The pueblos here — including the Bluff Great House that's just a stone's throw from today's hearing — were inhabited on-and-off from the 9th to the 13th centuries by the ancestors of today’s Zuni, Hopi and Rio Grande Pueblo people. And the Bears Ears and other landmarks on this landscape are considered to be important religious sites. 

That, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye tells Jewell in the hearing, is why his tribal government supports a national monument. “We relate to them (the Bears Ears) like an Anglo relates to a family member,” he says. Begaye’s tribe, along with the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ute tribe, overcame historic antagonism to join together to form the coalition that’s pushing for the monument. That’s unprecedented, as is their proposed management structure: a committee of eight, including one representative from each tribe, and one representative each from the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. 

“It’s been far too long that us Natives have not been at the table,” says Malcolm Lehi, the Ute Mountain Ute council representative from the White Mesa community, just up the road from Bluff. “Here we are today inviting ourselves to the table. We’re making history.” 

The proposal and coalition has the support of six of the seven Navajo chapters in Utah, at least two-dozen additional tribes and the National Congress of American Indians, along with a host of environmental groups and more than 700 archaeologists.

And yet a group of local Utes and Navajos continues to oppose the monument, mostly because of fears that they will lose access to the land where they have long prayed, hunted and gathered herbs and firewood.  

Suzette Morris, who serves as a spokesperson for White Mesa Utes opposed to the monument designation, says that she and her fellow community members were left out of the monument proposal creation process. She worries about how a monument might affect access, including to a section of Ute Mountain Ute land in Allen Canyon — where her grandmother was born — on the eastern edge of the proposed monument. “Why do we need to pay someone to manage our land?” she asks. “We’re Native Americans, We’re supposed to be one with the land. Protection should come from within ourselves.”

By noon, an hour before the hearing begins, the line to get in has grown into the hundreds, more than tripling the population of Bluff, a huddle of stone houses situated at the confluence of Cottonwood Wash and the San Juan River. I retreat instead to a patch of tree-given shade, where I overhear local law enforcement talking about locals to watch for: “(He) always carries. In a holster on his left ankle.” “He showed up at Recapture (the ATV protest in May 2014) with a long gun.” Yet those elements  the militia members, the gun-toters, the Gadsden Flag wavers  are conspicuously absent this time. Instead, folks are engaging one another in fairly friendly debates over the topic.

  • Shirley Clarke (far left), Notah Tahy and Maryleen Tahy, with Clarke's granddaughter (second from left), at the Bluff hearing. They oppose the national monument proposal for a variety of reasons.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Interior Secretary Sally Jewell listened to comments for over three hours in a sweltering community center building in Bluff, Utah, on July 16.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Opponents of the national monument proposal listen to comments at the hearing.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Supporters of the national monument proposal listen to comments at the hearing.

    Jonathan Thompson

“There’s a difference between living in Salt Lake City and living on the reservation,” says Notah Tahy, a Navajo who lives in Blanding and who dons a wide-brimmed straw cowboy hat and a turquoise bolo tie. He’s talking to an older couple from Salt Lake wearing the baby blue shirts indicating support for the monument designation. Tahy says a monument would make life harder for the already beleaguered Navajos living on the reservation. “A lot of our medicine men get their herbs from there. And others pick piñon nuts,” he says. “Some pick enough to make a little bit of a living.” Turn it into a monument and next thing you know, he says, they’re charging everyone $30 to get in, “like the Grand Canyon.” 

“It’s going to be on the map. It’s going to be like Moab,” says Shirley Clarke, a Navajo living in Blanding. That, she says, is not a good thing, echoing another reason for ambivalence regarding a monument, even among environmentalists: It would attract more people and result in more impacts to a place that a lot of locals consider to be blissfully void of people now. 

Mark Maryboy, a longtime local Navajo activist and politician and one of the early advocates for a monument, tells me that folks like Tahy and Morris have nothing to worry about. If they would read the coalition's proposal, he says, they'd see that it would preserve access for traditional uses of the land.

“Our proposal is not about exclusion, says Zuni Tribal Councilman Carleton Bowekaty. “It’s about education and partnership.”

Approximately 70 people speak during the hearing itself, with members of the public chosen to give input by lottery. For three-and-a-half hours the comments go on, with the heat of hundreds of bodies easily overcoming the building's air conditioning, and emotions on both sides running as high as the temperature. Yet just about everyone, even those most passionately opposed to the monument, clearly care about the landscape in question and want it to be protected to some degree. 

Jewell is here to listen, not talk, but after the comments end, she sums up the mood succinctly. “One thing has run true throughout, she says. That everyone is committed to this place.”

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is currently working on a feature story for the magazine about the Bears Ears proposal

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