SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's elected leaders are pushing forward on their promise to fight the Bears Ears National Monument any way they can, with the latest battle cry a threat to withhold funding.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, asked a House Interior Appropriations subcommittee over the U.S. Department of Interior and other agencies to refrain from funding the Bears Ears as a national monument.
"We, along with state and local officials, and the residents of San Juan County, are committed to ensuring that the Bears Ears region is protected and productive. We firmly believe that these decisions are best made locally, not by lame-duck presidents," he told members of the Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations.
Calls for defunding monument management will only help to further deteriorate relationships, according to pro-monument group Utah Dine Bikeyah.
“Defunding Bears Ears only creates a wider division between parties," Willie Grayeyes, board chairman of the organization, said Monday. "The healing process that we are talking about suggests that we should all come together around solutions that help the land and help local people have a larger role in managing these lands. We need more local jobs in San Juan County, not fewer.”
Chaffetz's request on Feb. 28 was followed by the March 3 selection of another Utah opponent of Bears Ears National Monument — Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah — to serve as vice chairman of that committee.
Stewart on Monday said withholding funding is a tool that has been used before in signficant policy disputes.
"In the past we have denied funding for certain priorities Congress didn't agree to," Stewart said, adding that withholding dollars for monument management is not off the table.
"It's not ideal. It's better to have a resolution on the designation," he said.
Stewart said newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has pledged to visit Utah within the next few weeks to learn more about the Bears Ears region.
"We will make our case that there is a better way to do it than have it imposed by the president under the Antiquities Act," the congressman said.
Monument supporters have pressed Zinke for a visit to Bears Ears and to attend a community hearing to detail the benefits of the land designation of 1.35 million acres in a region that is said to have in excess of 100,000 cultural artifacts badly in need of protection.
They have also vowed to fight the attempts to unravel the designation made in December by President Barack Obama.
Stewart said as vice chairman of the appropriations subcommittee he has a number of funding priorities with clear impacts to Utah and other states in the West, including ensuring rural counties receive Payment in Lieu of Taxes money.
That program was set up in 1976 by Congress to compensate counties for losses in property taxes due to having nontaxable federal land within their borders. Utah received about $35 million in fiscal year 2015, but three counties — including San Juan and Grand counties — had their funding reduced.
Stewart said it is also important to garner money for the Secure Rural Schools program, which expired in 2015. That program provides funding and assistance to rural counties and school districts impacted by the decline of revenue from timber harvests on federal lands.
The raging cost of fighting fires is putting the U.S. Forest Service budget in peril, with the agency spending more than 50 percent of its budget on wildfires for the first time a couple of years ago.
Stewart said there has to be a way to fix those spiraling costs, and granting local government and state government more oversight of fires in their backyard could help.
"We need to look at the broad idea of what is the appropriate mix of federal and state and local control," he said. "No one is suggesting we sell these federal public lands, but there should be some way to give more control back to the state and local governments."