MONTICELLO — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell warned a room full of Bears Ears monument critics that a lot of energy, research and support swirls around protections for the southeastern region of Utah and President Barack Obama has a only a few months left in office to create national monuments.
Jewell, in her meeting with San Juan County commissioners Thursday in Monticello, stressed no proclamation language exists for the 1.9 million-acre proposal, but her words were taken as a direct signal that a massive public lands bill better prove successful in Congress, and time is short.
"Her words were implicit," said Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who attended the meeting on Jewell's first leg of a three-day tour of the Bears Ears region. "I think they're pretty well set on doing a national monument, no matter what. But I hope not. It is a broken solution in a broken system."
Jewell warned of the ticking clock inherent in the passage of the final version of the Public Lands Initiative, a complex public lands bill covering 18 million acres in seven Utah counties that was made public even as the interior secretary was taking in the views of Gemini Bridges Thursday morning.
In the final version released by Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, the two omitted the mandate that would make the eastern Utah counties off-limits for any future monument designation under the Antiquities Act, acknowledging it was a deal breaker on many fronts.
Dropping that provision, and the new language proposing to set up two national conservation areas and a wilderness designation to protect 1.4 million acres in Bears Ears, did not satisfy steadfast critics of the public lands initiative process, which Bishop said was not a surprise
"I would be surprised if they were not critical," he said. "There have been some groups that have wanted to be involved in solving this and others who stopped talking long ago and came out against it even before the draft was released."
Seven environmental groups said the bill still gives too much deference to the oil and gas industry, fails to instill enough protections for the landscapes and creates wilderness in name only.
"It's a terrible, terrible bill for Utah wilderness,” said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This is nothing but an attempt to stop the Bears Ears national monument designation. President Obama will now see clearly that the Utah delegation is not serious about protecting our important public lands. He should act quickly to do the job himself.”
Under the new proposal, the Bears Ears region would be divided into a southern chunk involving a co-management provision with tribes to protect Native American interests. The northern half, the Indian Creek National Conservation Area, would be managed with different priorities to preserve world-class "crack" mountain climbing and the research, conservation and grazing playing out at the 5,200-acre Dugout Ranch owned by The Nature Conservancy.
Under a national monument designation sought by the consortium of environmental critics and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the fate of the Dugout Ranch and a multi-state science research center is in question, said Chaffetz' chief of staff Fred Ferguson.
"That would not be clear in a monument designation," he said.
Bishop's bill, more than three years in the making, attempts to broker a compromise over contentious land use on 18 million acres in Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Duchesne, Uintah and Summit counties.
While there is an emphasis on the Bears Ears region because of the monument controversy, other provisions like expanding Arches National Park and creation of the Jurassic National Monument at Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry remain in the bill, as does expanding Goblin Valley State Park in the San Rafael region to put more parks people on the ground to increase management of the popular recreation area.
Upon release of the bill, Chaffetz stressed it represents a workable solution by conserving landscapes where needed and streamlining energy development where it is appropriate.
"All interested voices have been at the table. … I hope the secretary understands our sincere effort to make this a locally driven process," he said.
"Hopefully this balanced approach will win the day and provide certainty so people can get on with their lives."
Specifically, the bill targets 4.6 million acres of land for conservation, up 300,000 from the original proposal, and 1.15 million acres for recreation and economic development, up 10,400 acres from the original proposal.
Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, a veteran GOP faithful and states’ right defender, said the bill needs to be given a chance to succeed, even as critics are demanding a monument.
"Let's face it, there are differences among everyone who is involved in this, but those differences have become very similar at the end of the day," he said. "No one has ever gone this far in defining which lands are appropriate for conservation and those lands where development can take place."
Jewell, who visited with Native American opponents to the monument designation on Thursday after touring Newspaper Rock and Dugout Ranch, made it clear the Obama administration views landscape level management plans that cross political boundaries as the most effective way to protect and manage resources, however.
"We know that the master leasing process is the wave of the future," she said. "Animals know no boundaries, tribes have not followed boundaries and minerals are not confined in boundaries, yet all politics are local," she said.
That federal land management approach would contradict the underpinnings of the public lands initiative, which was built county-by-county in fiercely negotiated land use plans commissioners felt their voters could support.
Frank Morrell was one of those who turned out bearing anti-monument signs at the Jewell meeting, urging Bishop's bill be allowed to succeed.
"We all live in this area because we think it is a beautiful place," he said. "We don't want to destroy it. We want to take care of it. Let's give this a chance."
Bishop has warned all along that his bill will make no one happy, but give everyone in the land debate something they’ve been pushing for — whether it is protection of high-value recreation lands, certainty over grazing and energy development, or designation of wilderness areas for pristine Utah landscapes.
Some groups, while urging protection for the Bears Ears region, have yet to land one side or the other in the complex debate.
American Whitewater and the Outdoor Alliance each issued statements urging turnout out for a 1 p.m. Saturday meeting at the Bluff Community Center, where Jewell will continue to hear concerns in the contentious debate.
"Bears Ears in southeastern Utah is a mecca for climbing and other outdoor recreation activities," said Adam Cramer, executive director of the Outdoor Alliance. "This gathering this Saturday in Bluff, Utah to discuss the future of the region is arguably the most important event regarding public lands this year.”
Everyone on both sides of the issue expects the meeting to be packed and heated, with stepped up law enforcement anticipated to contain emotional crowds. Accusations continue to fly back and forth and bubbled up on a personal level Thursday in Monticello, where several San Juan County Native Americans said they believed their land was being sacrificed in the name of money for an "Anglo" agenda.
"We are looking at things here that are a very touchy situation between the tribes," said Boyd Lopez of the White Mountain Ute. "Money becomes poison among the Indian people as well. My understanding of what is happening here is that money got involved and that is how it started. This is another way of taking the land away from somebody," Lopez said.
Lopez is the brother of Rebecca Lopez-Whiteskunk, co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
The issue, stressed San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, has split families apart — pitting brother against sister, parents against children and estranging grandchildren.
Susie Philemon said the Navajo Nation doesn't speak for her and the coalition does not have San Juan County Native American's best interests at heart.
"I beg of you," Philemon told Jewell. "Tell Obama not to sign it."
Jewell will hear another Native American story Friday as she meets with monument supporters in what will prove to be another grueling day of travel and intense emotion.
She showed no signs of exhaustion or lack of patience during Thursday's frenetic geographic tour bombarded with pleas and questions, simply acknowledging the land use question for the region is a tough one for all.
"It is difficult to make the decisions that you all have to make and I have to make," she said. "...We think about the long game. We think about what is not only right for our generation, or our children's or grandchildren's but the generations to follow. I know I sleep well when I make decisions on that basis."
Bishop said he will have a hearing on his bill in September and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will co-sponsor the legislation in the Senate.