SALT LAKE CITY — Native American tribal leaders say mining, looting, grave robbing and mineral leasing all threaten a 1.9 million-acre area in southeastern Utah they call a sacred place of healing.
They want those activities to stop, and for President Barack Obama to respond to a first-ever request by Native Americans to create a national monument on their behalf.
"This is a big breakthrough for Native Americans," said Alfred Lomahquahu, co-chairman of the Inter-Tribal Bears Ears Coalition during a news conference Thursday morning in Washington, D.C. "We have never used this tool before."
Coalition leaders and other tribal representatives said land within the boundaries of the proposed monument in San Juan County is used by tribes for gathering of medicine and herbs, worshiping at sacred areas, holding ceremonies, protecting archaeological sites, gathering firewood and more.
Development on the land threatens not only those uses, tribes say, but the pristine landscape they assert is like healing balm.
"I think the threats are real," said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the Utah Diné Bikéyah, adding it is not possible to undo the damage. "You will never put a grain of sand in the right place."
The coalition unveiled a 39-page proposal, maps and an accompanying resolution directed at the Obama administration.
"It is not a matter of romanticism or political correctness," the proposal states. "Native people always have, and do now, conceive of and relate to the natural world in a different way than does the larger society."
Representatives said they are asking for a monument designation because the Public Lands Initiative planning process — being pushed by Utah GOP Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz — has ignored their desires.
"We have had friendly discussions. We have been in buildings," said Eric Descheenie, co-chairman of the Inter-Tribal coalition and special adviser to the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation. "But again we have not been taken seriously and our voices have not been heard."
Descheenie, during the news conference, invited Bishop and other members of Utah's congressional delegation to sit down with them to discuss protections for the area.
Members of Utah's congressional delegation — Sens. Mike Lee, Orrin Hatch and Bishop — issued a statement in response to the media event.
"The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is an important stakeholder in the Public Lands Initiative. The coalition represents many Native American voices that have an interest in how lands in San Juan County are managed.
"While many Native Americans who live in Utah oppose the coalition's proposal, we welcome the input and recommendations nonetheless. Our offices have now received over 65 detailed proposals from various stakeholder groups regarding land management in eastern Utah. We remain committed to reviewing each proposal and producing a final (Public Lands Initiative) bill that is balanced and broadly supported."
Bishop, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, has been shepherding the Public Lands Initiative process for the past three years. It involves land planning for an estimated 18 million acres in as many as eight of the state's eastern counties.
Some of that land use possibly includes wilderness designations for millions of acres, as well as "energy" zones and a recognition of high-value recreation areas.
Players at the table include conservation groups, county commissioners, environmental advocates, the oil and gas industry, tribes, the Utah Farm Bureau, and recreation interests. Proposals for land-use designations have come from county commissions, which has led some to criticize the process as being too beholden to county-driven interests.
Both Bishop and San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams disputed tribes being cut out of San Juan County's process and said key representatives of Utah tribes have been involved in discussions over what lands should be included in a draft bill expected to be released this fall.
"We are not trying to bloody the Navajo nose," Adams said in an earlier interview. "We feel like there are a significant number of Navajo who went to meetings and accepted the proposal."
Adams said the public lands bill Bishop is working on includes a 1,000-acre buffer zone around the geologic feature of the Bears Ears that would be protected in a national conservation area.
The coalition disagrees that the protections or their involvement in the process have been enough.
"Throughout the last six years, San Juan County and the Utah congressional delegation has demonstrated that they either do not understand how to reach Native American tribes and individuals, or they are unwilling to do so," the proposal said.
Coalition leaders added that they requested to meet with Bishop and Chaffetz in August, but said they were ignored.
Thursday's media event also included participation by Phillip Vicenti, vice chairman at the Hopi Tribe, and Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, head councilwoman of Pueblo of Zuni Tribal Council, along with multiple leaders of the Ute tribes.
That so many tribes have come together in unification speaks to the special nature of the area, Descheenie said.
"We hold the Bears Ears in high regard," he said. "This is very much a human endeavor. This is not just about national monuments. … Bears Ears offers something unique that we cannot find anywhere else in the world, and therefore is something special," he said in a news conference from Washington, D.C.
The monument designation for 1.9 million acres would have far-reaching impacts for an area of southeastern Utah that is already dominated by federal land ownership, according to Adams.
About 8 percent of San Juan County is privately owned, he said, with the rest in the hands of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
"We have about 4.5 million acres," Adams said. "If you take 2 million acres, that takes about 50 percent of the land available for the public and puts a designation on it that limits public access and limits public enjoyment."
Kim Christy, deputy director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, said the monument proposal would lock up a block of 157,000 acres the trust owns.
"Our concern is that there is serious consideration for us to trade out of this property and that is handled on the front end, not the back end," should the proposal go forward, Christy said.
He said it took several years for the trust lands administration to trade out lands locked up with the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as other holdings mothballed in national parks, Forest Service land and even a Navajo reservation.
The San Juan County area under the tribes' proposal is used for grazing and has uranium deposits as well as mineral leases.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has emphasized any monument designation would not be made under a cloak of secrecy.