SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers will consider a resolution opposing President Barack Obama creating a new national monument in southeastern Utah when they go into special session next month.
Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday it's "absolutely irresponsible" for the Obama administration to consider a monument that is more than twice the size of Rhode Island without input from Utahns across the state who would be impacted by the decision. Herbert has repeatedly opposed such a declaration.
"Today, I am asking every member of the Utah State Legislature to go on record and join me in expressing our opposition to another unilateral national monument within the state," he said.
Legislators also will consider at the May 18 special session restoring $4.7 million in education funding that Herbert vetoed last month.
Rhetoric over a proposed 1.9 million-acre monument on two buttes in San Juan County known as Bears Ears heated up Wednesday as the Obama administration looks to change the course of public lands management in the country.
A major policy speech by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is fueling speculation that Obama will use the Antiquities Act to designate such a national monument.
"I almost want to dare them to do it," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, questioning what is purported to be strong local backing for the monument.
"The idea that there is broad support for this is just wrong, it's a fallacy, political spin," he said on KSL Newsradio's "Doug Wright Show."
Jewell did not specifically mention Bears Ears, but stressed the need to broaden the appeal of public lands and parks to more diverse groups, including Native Americans. Utah is among the places Jewell plans to visit this summer to hear about proposals for conserving public lands.
Herbert said Obama cabinet members told him no national monument would be designated in Utah without an open, public process first. He called on the president to make good on those assurances.
"We still have open sores with what happened with Bill Clinton," Herbert said, referring to Clinton using the Antiquities Act to create Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
Support for a southeastern Utah monument among Native Americans, though, appears sharply divided.
Public testimony over a possible Bears Ears National Monument ignited testy exchanges Wednesday between Republican and Democratic state lawmakers on a Utah public lands committee.
The Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands took on the politically charged issue in a Capitol meeting packed with people wearing T-shirts reading "Protect Bears Ears." Many stood holding signs supporting a national monument until they were told to sit down. Some stood the entire two-hour meeting anyway.
"Thank you very much. You're here for the wrong reason," San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally told the crowd during her testimony.
Benally, a Democrat, told lawmakers the 15,000 residents she represents, half of whom are Navajo, don't want a national monument but would favor Bears Ears becoming a national conservation area. Navajos, she said, don't want to lose access to a place they go for healing, meditation and spirituality.
Benally accused environmental groups of bullying, intimidating and harassing Navajos and even paying Native Americans to lobby for a national monument.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, agrees with Benally's position. He said monument supporters are interfering with local government and are acting out of "absolute selfishness."
"They have no clue about the Bears Ears. They have no clue about the issues in my district," he said.
But Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member and co-chairwoman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said Benally doesn't speak for everyone in the area.
The coalition, representing members of the Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Uintah-Ouray, Hopi and Zuni tribes, is pushing for the new monument, saying a national conservation area would not go far enough to protect from looting, off-vehicle highway use and other degradations of Native American resting places and cultural resources.
"Not only am I voice of my people, I still have my ancestors on my shoulder," she said.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, said it's a unique situation to have five tribes come together and 26 others expressing strong support to protect Bears Ears.
"It is fabulous and it is noted in Washington," he said.
Cynthia Wilson, a University of Utah graduate student from Monument Valley, said six of seven Navajo chapters favored a monument in grassroots meetings she has held with them. She said it would be the first time five tribes would manage a national monument.
"This is a new generation. And yes, we do have a history of broken treaties, but this is our time to make a difference by working together in co-managing the land and protecting our sacred sites," she said.
Republican commission members, however, showed little interest in what Wilson, Lopez-Whiteskunk or other monument supporters had to say, cutting off their comments before they could finish.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, asked Lopez-Whiteskunk if she would favor making Sleeping Ute Mountain near her home in southwestern Colorado a national monument. She said no.
"If a monument is good in one state, it should be good in another state," Hinkins replied.
Lopez-Whiteskunk said after the meeting that she found it offensive that GOP lawmakers appeared interested in only one point of view and called the accusation about being paid by environmental groups "absurd."
After learning the governor and full Legislature might take action, the lands commission put off voting on a resolution opposing use of the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument.
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