Editor’s note: The following is a jointly signed statement by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Rob Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Rep. Chris Stewart, and Rep. Mia Love.
Imploring President Barack Obama not to designate a national monument at Utah’s Bears Ears, a group of Utah Navajo last September stood in front of the United States Capitol hoping to be heard.
“It puts a heavy burden on our hearts,” they said, “to think it will be the decision of one person to forever deprive us from having a physical connection to our spiritual sites.” Sadly, this heartfelt plea fell on deaf ears. As a parting shot of his presidency, Obama ignored the petition of these local Navajo — and the will of thousands of Utahns — when he designated the Bears Ears National Monument.
As a congressional delegation, we value our public lands, and we want to do everything we can to protect them. Bears Ears is no exception. The land that surrounds these twin buttes is a beautiful region of our state that merits special protection. This land is important to Utah’s Native Americans. To them, Bears Ears is more than a recreation destination; it is sacred ground rich in cultural and historical significance. With its abundant natural resources — including wood to warm homes in the winter — many Native Americans depend on this land not only for spiritual nourishment, but also for their very survival.
Given what this land means to so many people in our state, we were deeply dismayed when Obama ignored our advice and unilaterally declared a 1.35 million-acre monument while he vacationed in Hawaii. Leading up to this unprecedented land grab, well-funded special interest groups — many of them based outside Utah — spread the lie that a national monument would preserve and protect existing land uses. If previous monument designations are any indication, land use at Bears Ears will never be the same.
As a case in point, look no further than the Natural Bridges National Monument to the north, where signs posted outside the entrance warn visitors that wood gathering is punishable by fines. Look to the east, in Garfield and Kane counties, where grazing in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has steadily declined, leading to an economic downturn that has forced families to move elsewhere in search of jobs.
The new Bears Ears designation offers similar false promises and, worse, provides only the appearance of enhanced protection for the actual resources and sacred sites on the ground.
Here’s the truth: Obama’s designation will do nothing to increase protection for the sacred areas of Bears Ears. The same federal agencies with the same resources and personnel will continue their same work as usual. The people on the ground are provided virtually nothing new to help protect the area they love. The only difference with this monument designation is that government bureaucrats can now direct new land-management plans. Once completed, these plans will be subject to the whims and fancies of a federal land manager. Under this structure, when locals disagree with how the land is being managed, they are powerless to change it. The only way to prevent this is co-management of the land. The administration admits it cannot provide co-management. Only legislation can do that.
The Obama administration claims it has elevated tribes to have a guiding role in the management of Bears Ears. In reality, it has created a Native American commission that can be ignored without consequence.
We do not support this outcome. We will do the following in the coming weeks:
We will work with the Trump administration to re-examine Bears Ears National Monument, as well as other ill-advised unilateral executive designations across the country. What is done through executive action can be undone through executive action.
We will utilize all the Article One powers we possess, including the power of the purse, congressional oversight and legislation. We will support all efforts of the state, including the judicial route, to ensure Utahns control their own destiny.
Long after the green settles from Obama’s last golf swing, the local Native Americans and residents of San Juan County will still be here. They deserve better.
We are not giving up. We are in this for the long haul. As Rebecca Benally — the first Native American woman elected to represent this area — recently said, “It’s just another federal overreach with empty promises … Stop romanticizing and stop pretending you are doing this for Native American people. It’s wrong.”
Orrin Hatch is Utah's senior U.S. senator. Mike Lee is Utah's junior U.S. senator. Rob Bishop represents Utah's 1st Congressional District. Chris Stewart represents Utah's 2nd Congressional District. Jason Chaffetz represents Utah's 3rd Congressional District. Mia Love represents Utah's 4th Congressional District.