SALT LAKE CITY — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said flatly she doesn't control President Barack Obama's pen when it comes to any new monument designation in Utah, but she insists there's no plan to sneak around Utah and create one under the "cloak of darkness."
"There hasn't been any monument designation that President Obama has done that hasn't had a pretty open, public process," Jewell said. "It is an open, transparent process we have been engaged in all along."
Jewell, in Salt Lake City for a Thursday announcement of a youth initiative with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, met with the editorial board of Deseret Media Companies on Wednesday to discuss sage grouse, monuments and other Interior department issues.
Her presence in the state has been accompanied by a swirl of angst by Utah's top politicians that a monument designation in Utah is a just an ink stroke away and comes the same day a much-touted Public Lands Initiative was flayed by Native American tribes.
"Despite more than two years of dialogue with local stakeholders, we are concerned that the Public Lands Initiative Process and San Juan County have thus far failed to reach out to, consult and respond to feedback from Tribes within or outside of Utah," a letter from leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition reads.
Their letter late Wednesday was a rebuttal to one sent earlier in the day by Utah's entire congressional delegation to Jewell that implored her to let that process play out and refrain from any designation for Bears Ears, an area which spans 1.9 million acres in San Juan County.
The delegation's letter to Jewell said any use of the Antiquities Act to declare a new monument would undermine the success of the process in San Juan County, and references a San Juan County Commission vote Tuesday that approved protections for Bears Ears.
"Continued discussions involving the potential use of the Antiquities Act undermine public processes such as the PLI as they breed an atmosphere of distrust and discourages participants from working amicably to resolve conflict," the letter to Jewell reads.
But Jewell said she has yet to see any details of the Public Lands Initiative being shepherded by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
"We have not seen anything tangible," she said. "We have asked for detail, because we have seen no detail."
She said it is hard to say the process should play out when she does not know what it entails.
"What is really going to be important is to show us, bring us to the table. We do have a lot of lands that are involved in this, but we need to be brought to the table," she said. "We are going to continue to get requests from people who are worried about these lands."
Native American tribes pushing for protections of Bears Ears have been in her office, with maps, pushing their cause, she said.
Bishop said he hasn't shown any details to Jewell because the language in his bill — that includes all the land use proposals — is still being crafted.
"A soon as it is drafted we will share it with her," he said. "What is slowing it down right now is the mechanics of actually drafting the langauge and getting the maps ready."
Bishop's Public Lands Initiative process has been playing out for three years and 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, among others.
Bishop, who became chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources this year, rebuffed the accusations by the Bears Ears tribal coalition that the process hasn't been inclusive, adding those who wanted a seat at the table "had a seat."
He also said he is not opposed to having the protections for Bears Ears included in his bill.
"Yes, we are going to do it and do it well."
Bishop was expected to unveil a draft of his plan in March, but it remains unfinished.
The county plans are an integral component of the so-called Grand Bargain, which is an attempt to put to rest the contentious fights over how land is used.
In an earlier interview, Bishop emphasized he wants a final product that, once unveiled publicly, isn't going to go through a massive metamorphosis that could derail its success.
Some counties, like Emery, have reached consensus on land use designations early in the process, and others — such as San Juan — had difficult struggles, Bishop said.
The increasing political worry over a possible monument designation for Utah is being stoked by a mid-July private meeting between Native American tribes and key officials with the Interior department, including Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.
More than two dozen tribes are pushing for protections for the Bears Ears area.
"There is certainly interest for greater protections for special places in Utah," Jewell said.
Bishop promised his lands bill will deliver, but noted not everyone will be happy.
"When people see the final results of everyone's input they will see that everyone will win something, everyone will lose something and everyone will have a reason to hate it."