SALT LAKE CITY — Movie star and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio's foundation joined other philanthropic groups to cut a check for $1.5 million to establish the Bears Ears Community Engagement Fund.
The fund, announced Thursday, will enhance local community efforts aimed at conservation of natural resources and assist Native American tribes at the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah.
"To support robust tribal involvement in managing the monument and to also support community efforts to enhance resource conservation in the monument and to create economic opportunity," multiple groups stepped forward with contributions, according a press release issued by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Other contributors are: the Wyss Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Wilburforce Foundation and the Grand Canyon Trust.
Liz Judge, a communications officer with the Hewlett Foundation, said the Resources Legacy Fund will manage the contributions.
The Sacramento-based organization bills itself as a group that customizes the philanthropic goals of donors working toward the conservation of natural resources.
Carleton Bowekaty, co-chairman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said the Five Native American tribes involved in the push for the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument now have another reason to be grateful.
"We'll use these philanthropic funds to continue our tradition of preparing for the next seven generations and to protect this treasure for all Americans to enjoy," he said.
Walter Phelps, a Navajo Nation council delegate, said the money will provide a much-needed boost to help protect resources in the 1.35 million-acre monument, which is in a remote and rugged region boasting more than 100,000 cultural artifacts and sites.
The fund's creation comes at a time when Utah's congressional delegation — which is adamantly opposed to the monument designation — has threatened to hold up any funding for Bears Ears or try to overturn the Dec. 28 action by President Barack Obama.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, scoffed at the fund's creation and donors.
"The people of Utah don't want pity payments from jet-setting Hollywood millionaires," he said. "What we want is real local control of our land, not coastal elites forcing their values on us."
On Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, met with Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior. Afterward, he said in a statement, "I am confident that the new administration will work with us to right this wrong."
Hatch also discussed with Zinke his support for Utah Rep. Mike Noel to be nominated as the director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Monument supporters say the delegation has little chance at succeeding and instead should direct their attention to protecting a unique cultural and geologic treasure in Utah.
"The president's action to protect Bears Ears inspired us to create this fund, which is an investment in the local communities and the tribes and their ability to serve as the best stewards of the monument, as well as the most capable creators of economic opportunity for the region around the monument," said Michael Scott, acting program director for the Hewlett Foundation.
Critics of the new monument said the creation of the new fund by well-heeled out-of-state organizations and movie stars further bolsters their assertion that the "tribal" movement calling for the designation was co-opted by special interests and anything but authentic.
Multiple foundations involved in the creation of the fund have spent more than $20 million in the campaign, organizing strategy sessions in San Francisco years before the tribal coalition was formally established and pondering a political alliance with Native American tribes.
"We're encouraged private actors are interested in a monument that is managed well," said Derek Monson, director of public policy at the Sutherland Institute.
"However, if we want successful land management, then we have to include the voices of San Juan County residents, whose lives depend on the stewardship of the land. This is just another example of how the monument was driven by out-of-state political interests."
Jami Bayles, president of the newly formed Stewards of San Juan County, said "big money" is once again at play to influence policy outcomes.
"The worst-kept secret in Utah is that the Bears Ears National Monument designation was a policy outcome that represents the worst of big money in politics," she said.
"We continue to hope that the incoming Trump administration will rescind this monument, and we hope that out-of-state Hollywood elitists, like Leonardo DiCaprio, will find better things to do with their wealth besides trying to buy their position as San Juan County's absentee landlord."
But Josh Ewing, exectuive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, said the fund will help guide local decisions regarding resource protection that is badly needed in the region.
Environmental groups that include fund donor Grand Canyon Trust have complained about the lack of financial resources and staffing at Utah's other large national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The trust, in a blog post noting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument's 20th birthday, the environmental group said the monument's funding in 2016 is a third of what it was a decade ago and a once robust staff of 17 scientists has declined to one.
The monument's annual budget hovers around $6.2 million, according to BLM records.