BLUFF, San Juan County — This is big, raw countryside with tumbling landscapes of jutting Navajo sandstone cliffs bleached by grueling heat and sprawling bluffs that rise proud and angry from a sagebrush floor.
There is nothing diminutive in this bold and unforgiving land that is so overwhelmingly expansive and complex one can lose a sense of time and being — wrapped in serene beauty that can suddenly turn harsh.
It is that way with the emotions wrapped up in the possible designation of a Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, people divided like the high desert plains and rising bluffs.
There's little in between that "space" between getting a new monument or not handing the federal government more control of the land.
A misstep by the Obama administration — much like an ill-prepared hiker — either dooms the livelihoods of many in San Juan County or is yet another Anglo desecration of Native American heritage.
"This should have been a monument 25 years ago and we are far past the time to designate it," Josh Monson told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other top federal officials at an intense community meeting in Bluff that drew close to 2,000 people on Saturday.
"A ranger told me what he'd seen was tragic. It was if a vacuum cleaner had come through the canyon and sucked up all the artifacts."
When Monson identified himself from Dolores, Colorado, a man grumbled in the audience.
Like the wind that gusts across Highway 191 between Bluff and Monticello, people are whipped into a frenzy over a tribal coalition's request to President Barack Obama to use his power under the Antiquities Act to create a 1.9 million acre national monument for the Bears Ears region.
For many of these residents who live in San Juan County, they know this federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service is not something they own, but they live on it, feel it, breathe it and work it. And yes, they say they care for it.
Just as strongly, a majority of Native American tribal members who live in the Four Corners region claim ancestral and modern-day connections to the land, and they're tired of the looting, the vandalism, weary of oil and gas development that threatens their landscape, of potash or uranium mining that may alter the land.
Jewell, in her four-day tour of Utah, noted the strength of emotions the opposing sides share, how they share the desire for protection, and how there aren't many differences that separate the polarizing views — just disagreement on the path to get there.
"That has been consistent no matter who have I have spoken with," she told them, speaking to the people in light blue T-shirts in favor of a monument designation and those in the slate T-shirts favoring a public lands bill sponsored by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
"This is an amazing place here in this corner of Utah and in this part of the world," Jewell said.
On the ground
The Utah congressional delegation wrote letters to Jewell and the president urging them to let a massive public lands bill solve the protection problem for Bears Ears.
Jewell has met with them, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the leaders of five tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
The D.C. talks, the letters, the petitions, the phone calls and the emails aren't enough, however, in the administration's eye to solve this question.
Wednesday, Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, BLM national director Neal Kornze, and Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources in the U.S. Department of Agriculture — overseeing the Forest Service — put wheels down in Salt Lake City, along with a contingent of other brass.
The band of dignitaries set out on a frenetic mission of fact-finding and land gazing, of listening and explaining, traveling to Emery and Grand counties, ascending to the Big Flat near Canyonlands National Park.
It was there where they saw outdoor recreation and oil and gas development strike a relationship of coexistence, thrust into a relationship that while not ideal, often plays out like two neighbors who agree to chat over the fence but not get too cozy.
Jewell met with county commissioners from a trio of Utah counties, ranchers, business people, outdoor recreation guides, Native Americans, young children and old people in wheelchairs.
Jewell stressed her job is to listen and take that information back to Washington, D.C.
At Saturday's often boisterous, booing, cheering, raucous meeting where people still stomached an opposing view, Jewell was bombarded with plaintive pleas for monument protection and vehement arguments over why the land should just be managed under existing federal laws designed to protective Native American rights and antiquities.
"I hiked Bears Ears before it was cool," said Byron Clarke, a Blue Mountain Navajo.
He said he distrusts the federal government to grant rights and access to Native Americans under a monument designation.
"Laws are already in place," he said.
Clarke paused with emotion as he spoke of his ties to Bears Ears and the accusation that Navajo opposed to a monument don't favor stewardship of the land.
"We care about it."
The tribes behind the designation, however, say it will be a precedent-setting chance for them to have a seat at the table for management responsibilities and not merely be in a consulting or advisory role.
Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation, said it is something that is long overdue.
"This takes courage. I pray the president has the courage to make this designation."
Danny Palmer, a San Juan County resident, said it was clear there was a passionate desire to protect the area, but the issue has divided people to no productive purpose.
"Every group here has a large voice and a strong opinion that is best served without a monument," he said. "These rules, acts and laws are in place to protect this land already."
Palmer said a monument designation will not automatically instill honor or moral behavior in those who would cause destruction.
"A monument is not going to stop damage. Use your own voice and power to educate," he told the crowd. "It is going to segregate the people here and limit the freedom."
Critics say it is not enough to designate the region a national conservation area as proposed in the public lands bill and they don't trust Utah's congressional delegation or elected county officials.
"This is a chance to show our support for protecting our public lands,' said Tom Butine, who drove in from St. George, speaking prior to the meeting. "I realize the public lands initiative offers protections, but I don't think it is enough. A monument is totally appropriate because it prevents mining, especially the fossil fuels."
Critics of a monument designation have pleaded to the Obama administration to "hear" local input on the issue and to refrain from a surprise designation with the sweep of a presidential pen.
They refer to the 1996 action by President Bill Clinton — from Arizona — to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that continues to foster extreme resentment today.
"It was a bad process. We were lied to and we were told stories that were not true," said Jaquelyn Orton, the widow of former Utah Congressman Bill Orton, killed in a 2009 ATV accident.
"This process has been completely different. I am so grateful to the Obama administration and all leaders on all sides," she said.
Jewell took great care on her trek to the Bears Ears region to witness first-hand the vandalism at prehistoric sites scattered throughout the region, which BLM officials say are among the densest — if not the most dense — in the nation.
She hiked Comb Ridge where vandals defaced an expansive rock art panel and in Butler Wash saw bullet holes at the Wolfman petroglyph panel.
But Lynn Jackson, Grand County councilman, said a monument designation will not stop vandalism, which is likely occurring because of increased visitation to the area.
"Now it is being loved to death and I am afraid a monument designation will put a target on it. A monument also suggests one side got everything they wanted and the other side didn't."
There is much political jockeying left to do and the Obama administration has five months to decide.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will host a field hearing in San Juan County later this month and the public lands bill will get a full hearing before Bishop's committee in September.
What should happen to the Bears Ears region is like a petroglyph, open to interpretation, but many feel like the decision is already written on the wall, as clear as the etchings that depict deer and ancient peoples.
"For 45 years I've been on that mountain and I don't think I've done any damage. I camped, I rode horses," said Sharon Smith, a Blanding woman who is now in a wheelchair.
"I am afraid if it is a monument, the only chance I will get to see Bears Ears is from my front porch. We can send in 10,000 signatures, but only one counts — Obama's."
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