The spacious conference room at the Hideout Community Center in Monticello hosted the first meeting of the federal Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee last week.
Large windows allowed natural light into the room where committee members sat at tables arranged in a semi-circle formation facing a large projector screen, which federal officials used to display maps and presentation slides.
A few dozen members of the public and the media sat in rows behind the tables. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant facilitated the meeting, and took notes in colorful markers on a large pad of paper.
The Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee (MAC) is required by Presidential Proclamation 9558 of 2016, which first established Bears Ears National Monument (BENM).
The group’s job is to give expert information and advice on the management of the monument. Members were appointed by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, and each represents a specific management concern, such as recreation or archaeology.
Proclamation 9558 also charges the BLM and U.S. Forest Service (USFS), who must jointly devise a management plan, to consult various other groups such as the National Park Service, state and local governments and tribal governments.
BLM and USFS officers present for the MAC meeting included BLM Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter. Porter is the designated federal officer for the MAC. Also in attendance were BLM-Monticello Field Officer Manager Gary Torres, BLM-Utah State Director Ed Roberson, Manti-La Sal National Forest Supervisor Ryan Nehl and Moab/Monticello Forest District Ranger Michael Diem.
The committee meeting was held in two four-hour sessions over two consecutive days, where the 15-member committee convened with agency representatives and established roles and procedures, clarified its responsibilities and discussed management plans for the monument, which was modified in 2017 by a Presidential Proclamation into two units, Indian Creek and Shash Jaá (which includes satellite sites Moon House Ruin and Doll House Ruin).
The BLM and USFS had already created a draft Monument Management Plan (MMP) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the two units. The draft EIS outlines four alternatives for each of 16 categories of management concerns: cultural resources, fire management, lands and realty, lands with wilderness characteristics, livestock grazing, paleontological resources, recreation and visitor services, riparian and wetland resources, soil and water resources, special designations, special status species, travel and transportation management, vegetation, visual resource management and night skies, wildlife and fisheries, and forestry and woodlands.
For each category, alternative A would dictate that no action be taken. That is, the new Management Plan would continue to use the current management strategy, which is outlined in the 2008 Monticello Resource Management Plan and the 1986 Manti-La Sal Land and Resource Management Plan. Alternative B for each category would maximize protections in the monument by prohibiting some uses, and is generally the most restrictive choice.
Alternative C emphasizes “adaptive management,” an option that requires monitoring impacts and adjusting management policies in response.
Alternative D, which the agencies identified as their preferred choice, allows for the greatest management flexibility, and places the fewest restrictions on use.
For each of the 16 areas of management planning, the agencies had drafted bullet points defining alternatives A through D.
The MAC was asked to discuss the four alternatives for each of the 16 areas of management, and choose one per category to officially recommend to the agencies. They were also allowed to form a recommendation outside of the presented alternatives, if they saw fit — all of this within a two-day timeframe.
At the end of the first day’s meeting, the floor was opened to public comment. Sixteen people spoke to the committee, and their wide range of perspectives highlighted the controversies that still surround the monument.
Ana Tom, a Navajo resident of McCracken Mesa, was first to speak.
She explained that livestock grazing is part of Native American heritage and wished for Native grazing rights to be restored. She also lamented the area being touted as a place to visit. She held up a copy of a glossy tourism guide published by the San Juan Record, with a cover photo featuring a hiker among Native American ruins.
“How many people will it take to remove all the sandstone?” she asked, concerned about the fragility of the area’s natural resources. “As Native Americans, this is against our religion.”
Leland Grass, also Navajo, said that all of the conflict over the area was harmful, and people from all backgrounds needed to focus on softening those divides.
“It’s like throwing candies out there, everybody’s grabbing it,” he said of the process so far. “There’s no healing. This should be about healing, not about rock climbing, not about shooting.”
IN THE FACE OF ONGOING FEDERAL LITIGATION
Tim Peterson is the cultural landscapes program director for Grand Canyon Trust, a regional conservation advocacy nonprofit that is a party in an ongoing lawsuit against the Presidential Proclamation which reduced the boundaries of the original designation.
Peterson applauded the committee members for their willingness to volunteer their expertise, but said gently,“I’m afraid we’re wasting everyone’s time here.”
If the Presidential Proclamation reducing the monument is found to be unlawful, he said, the committee’s recommendations might no longer be relevant.
Because of that lawsuit and other similar cases, representatives from one group were notably absent from the meeting.
The Bears Ears Commission, made up of members from the five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, is charged with advising federal agencies on the management plan.
The group protests by saying monument planning meetings should not proceed while the boundary is still in litigation.
The Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition has also expressed strong disappointment with the selection of the MAC members, noting that while several longtime opponents to the monument designation are included, no early proponents of the monument’s proclamation were appointed to the committee.
Following up on that sentiment, Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit supporting the monument, sent a press release saying the committee “consists entirely of members who were vocally anti-Bears Ears or silent on the issue.”
“The Bears Ears federal advisory committee fails to provide a fairly balanced committee,” said Honor Keeler, a Cherokee and the assistant director for Utah Diné Bikéyah.
At the meeting, BLM officials assured the committee that the agency has been consulting with tribal organizations, including the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
The last public comment came from Rachel Nelson, President of Friends of Indian Creek (FOIC), a nonprofit organization that partners with land managers to protect natural resources within Indian Creek and maintain access to rock climbing, while fostering good relationships between rock climbers and land managers.
Indian Creek is world renowned for its unique climbing routes, and an increasing number of visitors come to the area each year to climb and recreate. The land is managed by the BLM.
“As the largest user group of the Indian Creek unit, we were naturally disappointed we were not selected for the MAC,” Nelson said.
There are two committee members representing developed recreation, and one representing dispersed recreation, but none of those members identify specifically as rock climbers. Nelson said FOIC hopes the management plan will include a detailed section that addresses and protects rock climbing, and in general supports Alternative C from the draft EIS.
At 8 a.m. on the second day of the meeting, members again sat down at the table, with their travel mugs filled with their morning beverages.
Bruce Adams, who as a current county commissioner is representing the local elected government in San Juan County on the committee, was elected committee chair, and Ryan Benally, who represents tribal concerns, was voted vice chair.
Participants made an effort to keep the tone light — Adams fit in a couple of jokes throughout the day, and called the meeting to order with a cowbell provided by Bryant.
Committee members were earnest and engaged, and cordial with each other and federal officers. Many are lifelong residents of San Juan County and have been active in their communities. Adams is a former science teacher, and mentioned that at least one member of the committee had been a student of his. Throughout discussions, the locals demonstrated their intimate knowledge of the area.
Various members knew specific details first-hand, like which archaeological sites have seen increased visitation, locations of established water sources for livestock and wildlife, and the character, condition, and location of roads, trails and backcountry sites.
Discussion began with topics the group had identified the previous day as the most important. Cultural resources dominated the conversation for much of the allotted time.
Benally asked if it would be possible for Native people to gather herbs and wood and meet to conduct their ceremonies without having to first obtain a permit from the BLM, noting that the office is a long drive from where many Native people live and carry out those activities.
His request echoed comments made by members of the public the previous day. BLM officials were hesitant to allow that as a possibility, saying they used the permit process to know where groups were going to be and where plants and trees are being harvested.
The committee did agree to recommend the creation of a monument or interpretive homage to K’aayelli, a Navajo leader who lived in the area in the early 1800s, as well as to early ranchers and farmers in the area. They also recommended that a space within the monument be designated for ceremonial gatherings.
Several archaeological sites are mentioned by name in the proclamations. Committee members noted that visitation to these well-known sites had increased over the last several years, and discussed ways to protect rock art and ancient cultural sites while still allowing for visitation.
In popular, easily accessed locations, some members advocated “hardening” sites to user impacts by creating more defined boundaries for where people can park, walk and use the bathroom.
Porter said that the BLM has plans to do just that for areas like the iconic House on Fire Puebloan sites, but the agency is limited by staffing and budget.
Zed Dalton, who represents the interests of private landowners on the committee, suggested the use of cameras to deter and catch vandals at popular archaeological sites.
Jared Barrett represents developed recreation on the MAC, and owns Wild River Expeditions, a guiding company based in Bluff.
Barrett worried that identifying the specific archaeological sites in public documents like the management plan would incur more damage to places that once were infrequently visited.
“By pointing a spotlight on that, we create more problems than we solve,” he said.
Recreation was also discussed in some detail. The BLM proposes eight recreation zones, each tailored to a different type of visitor experience, from those who just want to “take a selfie in Bears Ears,” as one BLM official said, to those who want a solitary backcountry experience.
Roberson summed up the inherent conflict of all public land management by saying, “How do we maximize multiple use and access while protecting the resources?”
Members wanted to know how the BLM defines target shooting, and discussed where it should be allowed or prohibited. They talked about whether permanent hardware for rock climbing should be permitted, how and where visitor group size limits should be determined, and how far away dispersed campers should be required to be from water sources.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
As discussions drew out, Bryant reminded the committee of their limited time.
Several members had to leave at the scheduled end of the meeting to catch flights, or for other commitments, and the remaining members did not want to continue without the full committee present.
They proposed scheduling a second meeting, but Bryant said the BLM’s timeline does not allow for another MAC gathering. The group would have to do their best to cover the long list of concerns that same morning. They strategized on how to get through the topics quickly, but were clearly disappointed that they could not be more thorough.
“What we’re tasked to do, in just a few hours, is pretty much impossible,” said Adams, not to discourage the assembly, but to acknowledge that they would have to move more quickly than they would have liked to work.
As the minutes ticked away, Daniel Flannery, who represents dispersed recreation on the committee, made a motion to give a blanket recommendation on all of the topics the group hadn’t had time to cover, such as wildlife and paleontological resources.
The committee voted in favor, giving federal agencies a default recommendation to exclude Alternatives B and C for all topics on which they had failed to make a specific recommendation. The motion passed.
The next step will be a proposed MMP and final EIS, which will be open to a 30-day public protest period.