SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands turned out to support public lands Saturday at a rally held in response to President Donald Trump's visit to Utah, during which he plans to announce a reduction to two national monuments in the state.
"I invite him to visit these lands before taking any action," said Ethel Branch, attorney general of the Navajo Nation. "I encourage him to take off his shoes and socks and feel the dirt with his toes, to reconnect and feel the heartbeat of Mother Earth."
The largely untouched land, she said, is sacred to many indigenous people, including five local tribes, and access to it and places like it are an important part of their worship and culture.
Bears Ears National Monument is the ancestral and spiritual home of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni tribes, all of whom "come together in peace on those lands," Branch said. "We have to have access to be able to interact with the earth in the right way."
Trump's decision to shrink and resize the monuments results from an April executive order calling for a review of 27 national monuments, including Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south central Utah.
"This is truly a monumental mistake," Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, said during the well-attended rally at the state Capitol. "These national treasures are owned by all Americans and future generations. We will not let our sacred monuments be broken up and downsized."
Earlier in the day at a Unity Rally at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello, a smaller but enthusiastic crowd gathered to thank Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for an expected announcement that the administration will significantly reduce the footprint of Bears Ears National Monument.
Standing in front of banner that read "Thank you for listening to local voices," San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams thanked the president for listening "to 15,000 people who live in San Juan County."
Trump's not your ordinary politician, he said.
"He cared about the people here in San Juan County, and he does care about them. We're grateful and thank him for what he's about to do," Adams said.
The commissioner recounted a conversation with a radio talk show host who asked him how the residents of San Juan County reacted to the news reports that the Trump administration plans to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent.
"We feel like we've just won the national championship in basketball," Adams said.
He also shared a conversation he had with Zinke, who told Adams if the Trump administration succeeds in scaling back the size of the 1.35-million-acre national monument created by President Barak Obama nearly a year ago, Adams would owe him a beer.
"I said, 'You fix this in San Juan County, I'll get you a case.' So I guess I'm on the tap for a case of beer for Secretary Zinke. I'm just not sure what kind he likes. We'll find that out," Adams said, softly laughing.
There were multiple expressions of gratitude: signs held by people attending the rally, one of which said "SJC (San Juan County) voices matter."
Monticello resident Jackie Palmer said she is grateful to the president for hearing the concerns of local residents.
"We've waited for this day and I'm just so happy with Trump's decision and just listening to us," she said. "It means a lot to all of us that we're here and that we're heard."
During a prayer, San Juan County administrator Kelly Pehrson said, "Father, we're grateful for thy hand touching the president's and having him make the right decision for our county."
The thousands in Salt Lake City, including many in Native American regalia who traveled hours from their homes, couldn't be more opposed to the move.
"We need to stay positive," said Malcolm Lehi, a Ute Mountain Ute tribe member who lives 30 minutes outside of Bears Ears, near White Mesa. "It is important for our heritage and tradition."
He's been hunting elk and deer on the lands to prepare for the winter and said he couldn't survive without that permitted access when he needs it.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said she was impressed with the sea of people that filled the front lawn and steps of the Capitol. Many wore brown "Bears Ears" hats and T-shirts, and carried signs and banners that expressed discord with the current administration, but, more important, support for Utah's vast public lands.
"This is an assault of our values and everything we claim to be as Utahns," Biskupski said. "We will never stop fighting for what we believe is right."
Ten-year-old Robbie Bond, of Hawaii, founded Kids Speak for Parks when he heard that so many national monuments were under review by the president. He's traveled to at least 12 of them — reveling in Utah's "red rock canyons and juniper trees," and plans to educate his peers and encourage them to speak out about protecting public lands.
Bears Ears, he said, is unlike any other national park, as it "is focused on the Native Americans and their connection to the land."
"It is a place of healing for native people," Virgil Johnson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Goshute, said to cheers in the crowd. "The natives are stewards of this land. We all live in this land. We are all native Americans."
He said enough is enough, ending by leading the masses in chants of "Hell, no, we won't go."
The Salt Lake protesters carried a wide variety of signs, including many targeting the president, such as: "Hey Trump, you're making a monumental mistake," "Ax Trump — not monuments," "Keep your tiny hands off our public lands," "Who do you really work for?" and "Impeach Trump."
Others carried signs proclaiming "Utah Stands with Bears Ears," "Sacred places just like a temple," "Raising our hands to support public lands," "Save Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument" and "Protect Wild Utah" among many more.
Fourteen-thousand years of culture is preserved at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, including that of the modern tribes and Mormon pioneers, said palentologist Krista Sadler. She said it contains an "unequaled fossil record," ancient ecosystems, and every species of plant that is found throughout the state.
"Even if this place were ugly, it still needs to be protected," she said, calling Trump's anticipated move "an enormous land grab" in an attempt to privatize land. "It took geologic time to form these lands, it will take geologic time to repair them once we lose these public lands. Nothing can bring them back."
Garfield County Commissioner Jerry Taylor said he was grateful that national leaders finally took their concerns seriously 21 years after then-President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
"I don't know that you consider it a victory, but maybe it's a good time. … Now our voice has finally been heard, and hopefully, it will be good for Garfield County," he said.
The monument designation was a particularly challenging issue in Garfield County, which is 93 percent federally owned, Taylor said. "We've always just wanted a little help, needed a little help."16 comments on this story
The land, Bond said, isn't owned by the people who live nearest to it, but rather by all Americans everywhere.
"We will fight this because the future is counting on us," Sadler said.
Branch said the tribes are prepared to launch a legal attack on Trump, citing a handful of violations on his part, should he revoke or modify national monument lands on Monday.
The group is also planning to rally Monday during Trump's Salt Lake visit. Information about that gathering can be obtained by texting "Utah" to 52886.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero