The monument encompasses 1.3 million acres in neighboring San Juan County, and includes cultural and geologic features such as Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, areas for which some groups have long sought protections. The president’s proclamation notes that the region was first recommended for a monument designation in 1936.
Efforts to protect parts of the region have long been controversial. Many San Juan County residents adamantly opposed any national monument, and now feel that their input has been “disregarded,” San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said.
“I think for the most part people feel like they’ve been dictated to ... that the president decided to do something unilaterally that would have been much better to do in a public process,” Lyman said, noting that he will urge his representatives to “fix” this decision.
“I don’t fault Obama for doing what he does, I fault Congress for allowing him to do it,” Lyman added.
One day after Obama’s decision, more than 200 people gathered on the San Juan County courthouse steps in protest of the Bears Ears National Monument, according to various news reports.
Speaking at the event as a private citizen, former Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson repeated his opposition to the Antiquities Act.
“You do have people in Grand County who support this effort to undo this Antiquities Act as a nation,” Jackson said. “It’s a law that is far, far outdated into a point of abuse where the federal government dictates to us out in rural America what our economies are and are not going to be.”
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) also took the microphone on Dec. 29, saying Utah’s congressional delegation “is united in effort to try to right this wrong.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, acting as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is demanding greater clarity regarding the “how and why” behind the president’s exercise of executive authority. On Dec. 29, Chaffetz sent letters to both the Department of the Interior and the White House demanding they turn over all communications regarding the monument.
Bishop and Chaffetz worked for two years on the Utah Public Lands Initiative, a bill they said was intended to avoid future Antiquities Act designations in the state. The bill even included a “partner act” that prevented any president from invoking the Antiquities Act within the PLI’s seven participating counties.
The legislation, which also proposed an 857,603-acre “Bears Ears National Conservation Area,” was introduced in Congress in July but Congress adjourned in December without taking any action on it.
Bishop told the San Juan County crowd Dec. 28 that the PLI will be “rewritten” without the input of groups who no longer support the bill’s process.
That includes the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which initially participated in the PLI process. Disheartened with the initial draft of the PLI, SUWA instead put its support behind the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of Native American tribal leaders who wrote a detailed proposal for the Bears Ears national monument.
Steve Bloch, legal director for SUWA, has said the Utah congressional delegation failed at its purported compromises, adding that the legislation went nowhere in the House of Representatives.
“The Utah congressional delegation repeatedly said they were going to get the job done and they failed,” Bloch said. “ ... The President waited [to declare a monument] because the delegation asked him to so they could move ahead with the PLI. When that failed, [Obama] stepped in.”
Grand County Council member Mary McGann said she would have preferred the region be protected with the cooperation of the state and county, to avoid any backlash.
“I don’t think the [Grand County] council’s planning on taking a position, but personally I’m glad the antiquities are being protected,” McGann said. “I just pray that there isn’t a really bad reaction, that we don’t have violence or some undue action to it in a negative way. It would have been nice if it could have been done with the cooperation of the state and county, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen.”
According to the president’s proclamation, both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service will co-manage the Bears Ears National Monument.
In a joint statement, the agencies outlined similarities between the national monument and the PLI legislation, noting the monument’s 1.3 million-acre boundary was “largely based” on national conservation areas and wilderness designations contained within the PLI.
“These designations build on the framework developed by the congressmen to both protect and allow for continued use and enjoyment of the area by residents and visitors,” the agencies said in the prepared statement.
Similar to the PLI, the President’s proclamation also establishes a Bears Ears Commission made up of elected officials from five tribes, who will provide “guidance and recommendations” on the development and eventual implementation of the BLM and Forest Service management plan.
In addition to the Bears Ears Commission, the President’s proclamation establishes an advisory committee, made up of interested stakeholders, including state and local governments, tribes, recreational users, business owners and private landowners, to develop that management plan.
“All of us, native and non-native want to be solemn participants at the table as we strive for solutions,” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member who served as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chair. “We have spoken about protecting what this place was to our ancestors, and we will continue to share that in preparation for the next seven generations.”
President Obama’s proclamation preserves existing rights to mining, drilling and cattle grazing within the monument, but federal lands and interests within the monument’s boundaries will be withdrawn from future development.
The BLM and the Forest Service plan to host open houses in January to answer questions from permit holders and other stakeholders. Other public sessions will be held “later this winter and spring,” officials with both agencies said.
Some stipulations must be reached before Obama leaves office. Utah and the Department of the Interior must reach an understanding by Jan. 19 regarding a land exchange of about 109,000 acres of state School of Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) lands that now exist within the monument’s boundaries.Under the proclamation, those lands must be exchanged for BLM land of “approximately equal value.”
“Approximately 64 percent of our state is federal land, while only 6 percent is trust land,” said SITLA Director David Ure. “Our president and our government must provide just and fair compensation to Utah’s education system for lands captured within this monument designation.”
Although working out the logistics of the monument will take quite some time, federal documents note that it is now becoming reality.
“From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders,” President Obama’s proclamation stated. “ ... Protection of the Bears Ears area will preserve its cultural, prehistoric, and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that the prehistoric, historic, and scientific values of this area remain for the benefit of all Americans.”