SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said he spoke this month with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who assured him that "we are not the Clinton administration," he said, and a national monument will not be designated in Utah without local input.
The focus of that and future meetings with Jewell, Herbert said, is inviting her and President Barack Obama to visit Utah and see the state's conservation efforts already going "over and above" the Bears Ears.
"We are trying to be good stewards of the Earth, and I believe that we are, in fact, very responsible citizens of Utah," Herbert told the editorial board for the Deseret News and KSL on Monday.
But Jewell has stopped short of saying what the president intends for Bears Ears, a 1.9 million-acre landscape in San Juan County held in historical and religious significance for Native American communities. The site has been the subject of speculation and debate, with some calling for its preservation under the Antiquities Act and others wanting to protect it without prescriptive mandates from the White House.
Herbert last week signed a resolution that he asked the Utah Legislature to consider during a special legislative session, challenging the president's authority to create a monument and calling for the state to take "all legal options" to avoid such a designation.
Instead, Herbert said Obama should let the legislative process play out for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop's public lands initiative, which would protect Bears Ears in addition to implementing conservation practices in other areas of eastern Utah. That alternative would be the product of more local input and protect more land than a national monument created under the Antiquities Act would, he said.
"Does Bears Ears deserve protection? The answer is: yes. The question is: What's the best vehicle to give it the protection it needs?" he said. "The vehicle that I think is best in tune with the desires of the Native Americans is, in fact, the public lands initiative."
Native Americans in Utah, particularly the Navajo Nation, have been split on the issue. Several Utah Navajo chapter representatives voiced opposition to the monument last week on Capitol Hill prior to the special legislative session.
They said a monument would restrict access and activity on the site, threatening sacred ceremonies and other traditions.
"Bears is like a home to us," said Marie Holladay. "It is home to the Navajo people."
In contrast, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, representing five major Native American tribes, has asked Obama to create a monument in the area.
Herbert's Republican challenger, Jonathan Johnson, is also opposed to a monument designation by the president. But waiting for Bishop's public lands initiative may take too long before the president takes action, and it may be too late already, he said.
"I think we've worked ourselves into this predicament because for seven years, Gov. Herbert's taken no action to get the public lands transferred from the federal government to the state government," Johnson said. "Frankly, if President Obama designates the Bears Ears as a national monument, I think it lays at the feet of Gov. Herbert."
The chairman of Overstock.com said if he gains the governorship, he intends to file a lawsuit against the federal government to spur progress toward a lands transfer. Johnson said he and some members of Congress see a lawsuit as "not being conflicted, but being parallel tracks" with legislative efforts for local land control.
"Frankly, I think it gives them some leverage they don't have today," he said.
Herbert disagrees. He said litigation would slow negotiation efforts and derail the public lands initiative's "proverbial attempt to have a win-win" for Utahns.
"If we go to litigation," Herbert said, "you end up setting us back on three years of hard work by our congressional delegation, as well as trigger a lawsuit that probably will take up to 10 years to resolve. We'll know in probably a few months whether the (public lands initiative) is going to happen. So we ought to be patient."
Jewell this summer is expected to visit Utah, among other places, to hear proposals for conserving public lands. Herbert said he hopes Utah voices are heard in that process.
"She has assured me that 'we are not the Clinton administration,' and of course, 'this is the president's call. But we have no desire to go out there and mandate something without local input,'" Herbert said. "I think there will be an opportunity for local people to speak."