BLANDING — A trio of college law students sat at a table inside San Juan High School's gymnasium Tuesday night, filling out comment forms for one of the most divisive public land issues in Utah.
They were there at the behest of their college professor who wanted them to get familiar with the ins and the outs of the controversy surrounding the Bears Ears National Monument.
The Bureau of Land Management of Utah and U.S. Forest Service are hosting open houses in San Juan County on a draft management plan for the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek units of the monument, which was reduced in a controversial move by President Donald Trump last December.
Those plans are up for public comment through Nov. 15, and the informational open houses provide a forum for input. They continue Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Bluff Community Center, and at White Horse High School Thursday at the same time in Montezuma Creek.
People may also comment via email at [email protected], or by mail at 82 E. Dogwood Road, Moab, Utah, 84532.
Tuesday's open house drew a steady stream of people who had a chance to visit individual stations on specific components of the plan, such as grazing, recreation, cultural resources and the planning process itself.
The plans, while still in the proposal stage, are controversial on multiple fronts for both monument supporters and its critics.
Groups like Utah Dine Bikeyah, which is suing the Trump administration over the reduction, say the only management plan acceptable for consideration is one that would contemplate the entire 1.35 million-acre designation made by President Barack Obama in 2016.
The organization, according to spokesman Alastair Lee Bitsóí, has already collected more than 300 comments from Native American tribal members who are urging federal agencies to halt what they assert is a rushed planning process.
That sentiment was echoed Tuesday night by San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who said the plans should not have been crafted without input from a yet-to-organized monument advisory commission.
The deadline for applicants on that commission ended on Monday, yet the plans were released in August.
"This is a rush to get public input," he said.
BLM spokeswoman Lisa Bryant said agencies have allowed six months of public input — 175 days — on plans that will be finalized early next year.
While the process has been streamlined through the Trump administration, Bryant said that doesn't mean federal agencies are skipping or ignoring key steps or considerations during the review.
The preferred management strategy, which is under fire from groups like Friends of Cedar Mesa, follows the Interior Department's directive of allowing access, visitation and protection of resources, Bryant said.
"It is designed to protect those values for which the monument was created," she said.
Amanda Podmore, assistant director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, said Tuesday the draft plan moves too slowly on the protection of cultural resources and there needs to be a coordinated strategy for marking which cultural sites are publicly accessible and which are off-limits.
"Ninety nine percent of people who come to Bears Ears will be happy visiting the sites that are available to them and that the tribes have agreed to."
Some local residents, too, feel strongly that the monument designation has not necessarily been the best thing for the landscape.
Kay Shumway, owner of Bears Ears Photography and a Blanding resident, said the continuing publicity over Bears Ears is increasing resource damage.
His family has a 125-year history with the sprawling landscape, which is seeing the effects of more visitation.
"I would go out there to take photographs, to pray, to spend the night. It's sacred to me," he said, noting changes to dispersed camping regulations because of the uptick in crowds.
Many groups and Native American tribes suing over the monument reduction are refusing to take part in the formulation of the draft management plans because they say it perpetuates an illegal action taken by the Trump administration.
The 1.35 million-acre monument was reduced to 201,876 acres in a Trump-issued proclamation, which quickly spurred multiple lawsuits by critics who say the U.S. president lacks the authority to reduce monuments.
Federal agencies note that in March of this year, five tribes that made up the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition were invited to participate in an organizing meeting of the Shash Jaa Commission, as was a member of the San Juan County Commission.
The tribes notified the federal agencies in writing they would not attend. The San Juan County elected official also did not attend.
Friends of Cedar Mesa, while opposed to draft plans it says create a monument in "name only," is participating in the planning process because its leaders say the issue of skyrocketing visitation merits immediate action.
The conservative think-tank Sutherland Institute also said the planning process needs to unfold.1 comment on this story
"Sutherland is pleased to see a discussion with locals taking place about monument management plans despite efforts from outside voices to delay and trivialize this important process," said Matt Anderson, with the institute's Coalition for Self Government in the West.
"No one wins by keeping this land in limbo — not locals, not the Native American sites and certainly not our public lands. Whatever plans are chosen, we hope it shows respect for and incorporates the diverse needs and values of San Juan County residents."