SALT LAKE CITY — President Barack Obama's Thursday designation of three national monuments in California amplified fears by Utah's congressional delegation that San Juan County's Bears Ears could be next on his list, spurring a strongly worded letter urging the president to leave Utah alone.
“Federal land-use policy has a major impact on the lives of those residing within and near federal lands," the letter dated Friday reads. "We believe the wisest land-use decisions are made with community involvement and local support. This principle is true whether skyscrapers or sagebrush surround the community."
The letter was signed by all four of Utah's representatives and its two senators, reiterating strong opposition to any creation of a new national monument and specifically a nearly 2 million acre-swath of land in San Juan County pushed by a tribal coalition and environmental groups.
“Use of the Antiquities Act within (Utah) will be met with fierce local opposition and will further polarize federal land-use discussions for years, if not decades," the letter stresses.
The delegation adds that protections for the area are being sought through the creation of a National Conservation Area that will still allow Native American uses of the land to continue. That designation is contained in the hefty Public Lands Initiative draft legislation unveiled last month by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz.
While a coalition of Utah Navajo tribal members have voiced opposition to any new monument designation, other members of the Navajo Nation, joined by Ute, Hopi and Zuni tribal leaders, have jockeyed for a new national monument because they say the Bishop bill does not go far enough.
Polarization of tribal sentiment on monument designation has created confusion over Bears Ears protections and what type of organizational oversight would be most effective at stopping desecration of cultural artifacts or outright looting. The land is currently under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, which is short staffed in that region and elsewhere in the state.
The letter urges Obama to let the Public Lands Initiative process play out and adhere to locally generated land use plans for the area.
"We plan to work with the administration to get this proposal signed into law," the letter said.
Utah's delegation said the plans contained in the draft legislation honor local wishes for the Bears Ears area.
"Make no mistake, both the state of Utah and San Juan County value our public lands. With that said, public participation in land-use decisions is critical to their long-term acceptance and success; the most effective land management policy is inclusive and engaging, not veiled and unilateral," the letter states.
The three-year crafting of the Bishop lands bill involved multiple and diverse groups at the table, including ranching interests, the mining industry, recreation groups and environmental organizations.
Many of those environmental groups, however, have slammed the proposal for the weight they say it gives to industry and ranchers over conservation. Summit County, one of seven counties involved in the process, also signaled this week leaders there cannot support the bill as drafted because it contains too many provisions contrary to what they sought in the legislation.
"We are reiterating we would like our original proposal included in the legislation," said Lisa Yoder, the county's director of sustainability.