SALT LAKE CITY — The proposed 1.4 million acres of the Bears Ears region contained in a massive public lands bill being unveiled this week would actually be split in two, with the southern portion set aside for traditional Native American uses.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and chief architect of the measure, said the region on federal lands in southeastern Utah will come with a new management structure that includes a tribal committee to ensure traditional access for wood gathering, ceremonies and gathering of plants.
"We spell out what the management practices will be and the purpose of those," Bishop said. "The lower half is strictly for conservation. They will be able to continue those traditional activities in a way that would not be guaranteed under a monument designation."
The final version of Bishop's bill is due to be released late this week, coinciding with a three-day, packed tour of San Juan and Grand counties by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Jewell will meet with tribal leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, visit with San Juan County commissioners and hear from congressional staffers from Bishop's and Rep. Jason Chaffetz's offices.
Cody Stewart, Gov. Gary Herbert's policy adviser, will also be at the talks, with Herbert already committed to attend a meeting of the National Governors' Association.
As the tempo accelerates around the Bears Ears controversy — the coalition is pushing President Barack Obama to declare 1.9 million acres a national monument — all sides in the issue are scrambling for the ear of Jewell, who has promised no designation will be made without local input.
To that end, beyond the intense slate of meetings, tours and hikes, Jewell will host a three-hour community meeting in Bluff to hear from residents on the issue.
Bishop mapped out some of his plans for the Bears Ears region, saying no one disputes the need for federal conservation area protections. The 1.4 million acres of the Bears Ears region would be divided into two roughly equal portions and managed as separate national conservation areas.
While the southern portion would be managed strictly with Native American uses and traditions in mind, the northern half would come under an administrative approach that recognizes existing outdoor recreation uses such as rock climbing in the Indian Creek corridor. The footprint also includes the Mancos Wilderness Area.
The divided conservation area model came at the request of The Nature Conservancy, which owns the 5,200-acre working Dugout Ranch that is also home to scientific research and ancestral Puebloan rock art and dwellings. The concept was pursued in consultation with San Juan County and some tribal representatives.
"This is a dramatic change from January," said Fred Ferguson, Chaffetz's chief of staff. "If you don't recognize the different conditions on the ground, management will be extremely difficult."
The northern region is already heavily used for outdoor recreation and includes some grazing, Ferguson said. Under the new management structure envisioned to protect cultural resources, the tribes will have a co-management position, elevated to cooperating partners in land-use planning, he said, and not simply consulted.
"They will have a seat at the table," Ferguson said. "Candidly, that is very difficult to be created through a monument designation."
The delegation asked the leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to sit down and review the changes in late June, but the offer was rebuffed.
"We are satisfied that a Bears Ears National Monument proclaimed by President Obama under his authority granted by the Antiquities Act presents the best opportunity to protect the Bears Ears landscape and assure a strong Native American voice in monument management," the coalition's letter said.
Coalition leaders bowed out of talks in December, accusing Bishop and Chaffetz of ignoring their input, leaving them out of the public lands initiative process and continually missing deadlines.
Bishop said the latest reaction was disappointing but not surprising.
"I think that is more indicative of the entire issue at hand," he said. "This was an organization whose first priority may not have been trying to sit down and work something out."
Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, a nonprofit advocacy organization for indigenous people, said the group long supported a national conservation area for Bears Ears because of the ability to write more language into that approach rather than a proclamation. The group, however, is deferring decisions to the coalition and supporting its position for a monument.
The public lands bill will be the subject of a formal hearing in August by the committee Bishop heads, the House Committee on Natural Resources, which will also hold a markup session on the bill in September.
Bishop's public lands bill, dubbed the "Grand Bargain," has been in the making for more than three years. It was released in draft form in January amid a swell of criticism from environmental groups who say it favored industry over conservation.