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San Juan Navajo criticize Bears Ears proposal

SALT LAKE CITY — Proponents of a new national monument in southeastern Utah say the proposal involves a unique management approach that will put Native American tribes on an equal playing field with the federal government when it comes to how the land is used.

Grazing could stay. Gathering of wood, berries and other items for medicinal purposes would continue. Tribal access would not be deterred.

"We want to be part of providing policy," should a Bears Ears National Monument be created, said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, tribal council member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

But it's a plan that does not have the support of tribal members in Utah, who want to keep locals involved with how land sacred to them is managed.

Leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition participated in an editorial board meeting with Deseret Media Companies on Monday, reiterating their desire to see 1.9 million acres in San Juan County receive monument protection.

Eric Descheenie, coalition co-chair, said some tribal members wrongly see a monument designation as making activities "dead on arrival when it comes to things they can do," but he disagreed there would necessarily be restricted access.

Instead, he stressed, an eight-member commission made up of representatives of five tribes and three federal land management agencies would determine what land uses could continue.

Several members of the Navajo tribe who live in San Juan County, however, don't believe a monument designation is in their best interest, or the best interest of the county.

"We do not want a national monument in San Juan County," said Harrison Johnson, a Navajo tribal member who also served on the San Juan County Lands Council. "It does nothing for us...We are the grassroots people who live in San Juan County who use this land to get wood, to get meat and what they (the coalition) is doing is inviting other tribes to say what they want with this monument. We disagree with that."

Opposition voices

Several Navajo tribal members say the coalition does not represent what the local people want.

"I think the coalition is out of touch with the people of southeastern Utah," said Harry F. Johnson. "We don't want it as a monument and we never agreed to it. It is being proposed from people who live outside the area. The people living in Arizona, Colorado don't use the area, we do."

Johnson, a member of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Tribe, said the coalition never approached Utah Navajo about a monument designation.

He said that tribes from California, New Mexico and Arizona have been persuaded to push for the designation, even though they may not have even heard of Bears Ears until being told about it.

"They don't live here, we do."

San Juan County Council member Rebecca Benally, a Navajo, said San Juan County's plan is for the area to receive protections under a federally designated National Conservation Area, which has fewer restrictions.

"It is the residents of this county who put that proposal together, not just the commission," she said.

The coalition, which Descheenie said formed in July, has traveled to Washington, D.C., to push the Interior Department and President Obama to use the Antiquities Act and declare a Bears Ear National Monument.

Leaders seek a voice

Descheenie said the monument push came about after tribal leaders were excluded from the Public Lands Initiative process being carried out by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both R-Utah. That process is creating a master plan of sorts for an estimated 18 million acres in Utah, which includes new wilderness designations, zones recognized for energy development and protections afford to high-value recreation areas.

The process involves eight counties, each of which were asked to cull input from multiple groups to develop "land-use" plans that met with majority approval.

"Our voices were not being heard," Descheenie said.

Bishop said the Bears Ears coalition is flat wrong to say tribal members were not consulted in the San Juan County lands plan.

"In the very first set of meetings we met with the Navajo Nation. There has always been Navajo representation from Utah. But some of these voices have very little connection to Utah."

Bishop added that the Public Lands Initiative process will give tribes a better "deal" than a monument designation would.

"It will be easier for them to make changes or deal with new issues in the future. With a monument, you have to deal with Washington."

Lopez-Whiteskunk said the process in particular has ignored the concerns of the Ute Tribe.

Bishop said there has been tribal involvement from the beginning.

"I am doing work with Utah Native Americans with Utah interests on Utah lands and a lot of this council does not represent Utah."

Tribal headquarters, or sovereign nation capitols, are located in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

Benally said the Public Lands initiative component for San Juan County was also approved by local Navajo members because it will allow them to get at tribal mineral rights locked up at McCracken Mesa during a land exchange for Lake Powell.

Both she and Harrison Johnson mentioned tribal conflicts that could arise with more federal government oversight via a monument designation, specifically mentioning Navajo people being evicted from ancestral lands because they are part of Canyon De Chelly National Monument in New Mexico.

"Whatever the decision may be," Benally said, "the coalition are not the ones who have to live here on a day-to-day basis. We are the ones who have to live with whatever the decision is."

Descheenie said he is a confident that a new management structure can be created to oversee the Bears Ears Monument that is protective of the land, its healing nature and respects tribal access.

"There are a lot of misnomer out there."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16