Frustrated by the pace of the Public Lands Initiative process, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has ceased negotiations with Utah's congressional delegation, and will instead encourage the Obama administration to designate a national monument in southeastern Utah.
In a letter to GOP Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, the coalition cites missed deadlines, a lack of substantive comments to its proposal and “raw, heavy-handed, political overreaching,” as reasons for its withdrawal.
“We have come to the conclusion that we have no choice but to discontinue these discussions,” the letter says. “Our strenuous efforts to participate in the (Public Lands Initiative), and related proceedings before that ... have been repeatedly stonewalled. We have not been taken seriously.”
Proponents of the initiative call it a “bottom-up” process that seeks to reconcile, through legislation, various land-use designations on millions of acres of federal public land in southeastern Utah. They see it as a way to resolve competing interests of preservation versus development, while averting the presidential proclamation of a national monument.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes members of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Zuni Pueblo tribes, became a stakeholder in the initiative process in July 2015. It is seeking the protection of 1.9 million acres of federal public lands in San Juan County that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service currently administer.
The area contains diverse ecosystems, vast scenic landscapes and is rich in archaeological resources dating from prehistoric to historic times. It is also home to modern traditional land uses such as grazing, uranium mining and wood harvesting.
The coalition presented a formal proposal to Bishop and Chaffetz in October 2015.
“Now, two and a half months after submitting our proposal to you, we have received no reactions at all,” the letter says. “The promised PLI draft was never delivered. All of this is consistent with PLI's repeated failures to meet deadlines.”
In response, Chaffetz told the Moab Sun News that the letter was “unexpected and confusing.” Chaffetz said that only weeks ago, he discussed a timeline with the coalition that extended well into January, and that a missed meeting on Dec. 30, 2015, was merely the result of a scheduling conflict.
“Regardless of the coalition's decision to walk away, the delegation will present a proposal that preserves sacred sites and protects historical access and use of the Bears Ears,” Chaffetz said.
Eric Descheenie, senior adviser to the Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, said that the coalition gave the congressmen every opportunity to respond to its proposal, but that tribal leaders eventually realized that the conversation was going nowhere.
"You have to ask if they are going to take themselves seriously if they can't honor their own words,” Descheenie said. “We told ourselves this. We can't expect anyone to take us seriously if we don't hold ourselves accountable to our own words."
Bishop said in a prepared statement that such a large monument designation would be a bad thing for the area, and that the views of the coalition don't represent those of Navajos who live in San Juan County.
But he said that protections of land surrounding the Bears Ears would be provided under the designation of a National Conservation Area.
"A structured conservation area would allow Native Americans who live in the area to use this land, and have the ability to maintain their traditional activities with the least amount of federal interference,” Bishop said. “It is clear this self-appointed coalition has an agenda that we need to reconcile with the wishes of those who actually call Utah home.”
Bishop has vowed to introduce the initiative as legislation before the end of President Barack Obama's final term, but with less than a year left, many are concerned that all will come for naught, and that a monument designation is looming.
Moab resident Jason Keith of Public Land Solutions, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of recreational resources on public lands, said that he still supports the initiative. But he added that time is running out.
“Many of us in the recreation community have spent the last few years working hard on the initiative to support a balanced solution for multiple uses in eastern Utah,” Keith said. “We prefer legislation, but many stakeholders are getting impatient with the repeated delays.”
Keith said that at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City on Jan. 7, some industry leaders said they are losing faith in the initiative process and are considering the possibility of throwing their support behind a monument.
Grand County Council member Mary McGann said that the council hadn't received any updates for some time.
“It is as though all our work has been dismissed,” McGann said. “In my opinion, it is irresponsible of Bishop and Chaffetz to demand so much of the counties, then not to follow through with the process. It is at least a half year behind schedule.”
But on Tuesday, Jan. 12, Chaffetz spokesperson MJ Henshaw said that Chaffetz' staff is scheduled to meet with Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs later this week to discuss the progress to date.
“Make no mistake, (the initiative) is a top priority for Congressman Chaffetz,” Henshaw said. “We plan to release a discussion draft in the near future.
Tubbs confirmed that Chaffetz' staff has contacted her, and that she expects to be presented with a draft proposal.
Tubbs said that regardless of the outcome, the initiative process, though painful, has been a positive thing for the community.
“I always believe a community is bettered when citizens get more involved – and that certainly occurred during the meetings,” she said. “I believe there has been a 'bump' in involvement since then on other issues.”
Tubbs said she thinks that an executive proclamation for a national monument is a very real possibility, given that one of the initiative's main goals is to thwart such a designation, and to do away with the authority of the Antiquities Act.
“We are drawing close to the end of this president’s term, and I would expect him to do something in the absence of any other steps toward resolution of public lands issues,” she said.
Descheenie said that the primary objective of the coalition is to protect the region for its spiritual and religious significance.
“It boils down to healing,” he said. “And that healing goes beyond the individual. What we would like to see is not just a national monument, but something that inspires a whole community, something that can make this a better place for the American people.”