NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT — Against the backdrop of the jutting formations known as the Bears Ears Buttes, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hugged a local Navajo medicine woman and promised to help her.
Hatch said he understands why she wants to continue to collect berries and pinyon pine from land she holds sacred so she can carry out her rituals of healing on the expansive, rolling landscape at the center of a controversial push for national monument designation.
Betty Nesbitt Long John Jones, 82, sought the senator's attention at a media event Thursday outside the visitors center at the Natural Bridges National Monument, about 35 miles southwest of Blanding.
She tapped him on the shoulder with a red folder and in her native language explained her misgivings about the area getting national monument status.
"We want to be able to use the land," Jones said through an interpreter, Anna Jones Tom, adding there has been a "misinterpretation" between the Native Americans on what a monument designation will do.
The sharp disagreement among Native Americans over whether the Bears Ears Buttes area should receive monument protections or be safeguarded through the creation of a national conservation area — which is not as restrictive — was evident among the organized groups who showed up for the event.
Monument supporters wore brown T-shirts emblazoned with "Protect Bears Ears," and jockeyed for Hatch's attention as well, while other groups of Navajo held signs expressing their opposition.
Hatch, walking with one supporter, told the woman, "We may not be on the same side," but quickly added, "we can work together, OK?"
Gov. Gary Herbert, who also attended the event, said it was clear there is no disagreement over the need to instill protections for the area, but the divisive question becomes which avenue should be taken.
"There are not any of us who disagree there are sensitive areas that need to be addressed," he said, emphasizing those protections still need to guarantee Native American access.
The proposal for the creation of a 1.9 million acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah has caused an ugly rift among some Utah Navajo and their counterparts in neighboring states, as well as tribes that include the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain.
Rebecca Benally, a Navajo woman who serves on the San Juan County Commission, said it is insulting for out-of-state tribes to tell local Native Americans what to do with their land and push for monument designation in a political movement she says has been co-opted by environmental groups.
Benally said tribal leaders in support of the monument have been told they can live on the land, but she's been told otherwise by the head of the Bureau of Land Management.
"That is how support is being achieved, through total lies," she said.
But Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, councilwoman of the Ute Mountain Tribe, issued a statement Thursday reiterating the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition's request for a new monument and blasted both Hatch and Herbert.
“It is appalling that Sen. Hatch and Gov. Herbert would come to a place that is sacred to tribes to promote misinformation about our proposal for a Bears Ears National Monument. These politicians should have spent their time seeing firsthand the looting and damage to our ancestors' graves and home sites. They could have chosen to work in good faith with tribal leaders to protect this sacred land, but have consistently chosen not to. That’s why we need President Obama to help tribes by designating a Bear Ears National Monument.“
Her news release also stated that the monument designation has the support of 25 tribes and the National Congress of American Indians.
Hatch and Herbert, however, said they are optimistic that no monument designation will be forthcoming, and the Obama administration is waiting to see how Congress responds to Rep. Rob Bishop's public lands bill.
The bill calls for the Bears Ears Area to be protected in a national conservation area of 1.2 million acres, a less restrictive designation than monument status that provides more flexibility in land management approaches. The provision is part of massive public lands management proposal that involves 18 million acres in eastern Utah spread among seven counties.
Although Congress is set to break for summer in mid-July, both Hatch and Herbert believe Bishop, R-Utah, can get Congress to act on the bill by the end of the year.
"We are making a strong case and we will work together," Hatch said. "We will have a resolution by November or December."
Herbert said he's met with both President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — the latter within the past three weeks — and has been encouraged by their attitude.
"(Jewell) seems to be optimistic," he said.
Herbert added that a monument designation would derail the three years of work and local input solicitation that went into Bishop's Public Lands Initiative process and upend protections laid out for other areas of the state.
As far as the Bears Ears area goes, Herbert stressed that any monument designation will put the place on the radar of tourists and generate more visitation that compromises the sanctity of thousands of cultural artifacts.
"It is going to be come one, come all," he warned.