SALT LAKE CITY — The key staffer for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, working on the Public Lands Initiative said the push for the Bears Ears National Monument is "dishonest" and an attempt to derail the success of the state's largest public lands bill.
Casey Snyder, Bishop's legislative director, told Utah lawmakers that Native Americans rallying for the designation of 1.9 million acres as a new national monument in the Bears Ears area of San Juan County have been misled.
"It is dishonest in what it represents and will have detrimental effects on the people in the area should a monument designation go through," Snyder told members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee during a Wednesday meeting.
"The negative comments are being brought about by environmental groups who would rather see a monument than finality brokered by the Public Lands Initiative."
Bishop's public lands bill, released in draft in January, is expected to be updated with modifications and ready to be released in its new form before summer recess for Congress begins in August, Snyder said.
He said the modifications are based on input received from 50 people, government entities, nonprofit organizations and other groups.
"We feel we are close to reaching something in the form of a consensus agreement," he said, adding that Bishop has stressed all along that the compromise bill is designed to offer something for everyone, but not everything to any one group.
Lawmakers questioned Snyder about the bill's detractors, including criticism from environmental groups that have walked away from negotiations.
Snyder said environmental groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance want to kill the bill so the monument designation — widely opposed by Utah's dominant conservative Republican leaders — happens before President Barack Obama leaves office.
Other groups, like the Nature Conservancy, have been partners in the compromise bill and remain at the table of negotiations, he said.
"The majority of people who live here and actually use these lands and will be impacted by these decisions are supportive of the effort," Snyder said, adding that the eight counties whose 18 million acres are part of the bill are still negotiating aspects of the legislation.
Some lawmakers expressed frustration with the mixed messages from Native Americans on the monument, stressing that it is difficult to take an accurate pulse on where support exists, and where it doesn't.
Snyder said the chapter houses of Navajo within Utah are "generally supportive," of the Public Lands Initiative, which calls for the Bears Ears area to be managed as a National Conservation Area making up 1.2 million acres — short of the 1.9 million acre monument proposal.
A conservation area is less restrictive than a monument would be, but it still carries with it a land use plan crafted by the Bureau of Land Management that invokes protections beyond what is typical.
Snyder estimated 90 percent of the Native Americans seen sporting signs that say "no monument," are from Utah, while those carrying signs in support of the designation are people who "do not live in the area and will not be impacted by those decisions."
"Based on the conversations that I've had, members of the Navajo Nation that are residents in the state are head and shoulders above in favor of what we are working on," he said
But Nizhone Meza, a legal fellow with Utah Dine Bikeyah, told the committee she resents that she is stripped of her tribal voice because she lives outside the area.
An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation but half Sioux, Meza said disregarding the voices of tribal representatives is wrong.
"I am troubled by the fact that we try to parse down tribal voice because it comes from a different state," she said, adding that group affiliations do not mean supporters are "bought off."
Utah Dine Bikeyah supports the monument creation. The group describes itself as "a Native American-led grass-roots nonprofit organization working to promote healing of people and the Earth through conservation of cultural lands."
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said many Native Americans support the monument creation because of false promises made to them by environmental groups.
McKell said one supporter indicated she wanted the monument because she was told the Native Americans would get their land back.
"We all know you don't get your lands back in a monument," he said. "There is no other way to say it: They are lying to people on the ground."