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Op-ed: Bears Ears — missing facts and misconceptions

The Arch Canyon area of Bears Ears is seen as members of the media get a chance to fly over the national monument with EcoFlight on Monday, May 8, 2017.
The Arch Canyon area of Bears Ears is seen as members of the media get a chance to fly over the national monument with EcoFlight on Monday, May 8, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Bears Ears National Monument controversy continues unabated, and President Trump's visit to Utah is sure to keep the fires burning. Media coverage has been dominated by the agendas of mainstream environmentalists and the corporate recreation industry.

But opinions on this issue need to be based on the best and most accurate information available. Consider these common misconceptions and some badly needed facts:

Monument status is essential to protect the region's priceless archaeology.

It's repeated ad nauseum on social media and it is false. National monuments are created via the 1906 Antiquities Act, but that law was hopelessly weak. In 1979, Congress passed the "Archaeological Resources Protection Act" to address those shortcomings. Former BLM Grand Gulch ranger Lynnell Schalk noted in "Archaeology" magazine that the Antiquities Act “was a slap on the wrist. With the passage of ARPA, the looting and trafficking of archaeological resources was given a felony provision.”

The monument was already federal land, protected by ARPA. We know funding is critically limited. Concentrate resources to enforce that law.

Without monument status, Bears Ears will be decimated by energy extraction.

Again, false. While environmentalists like SUWA board member Terry Tempest Williams insist that monument opposition is a "Big Oil" conspiracy, the facts indicate otherwise. While energy potential exists near the monument, federal land managers, geologists and most local residents agree that opportunities for commercially recoverable oil are low inside it. Even the Grand Canyon Trust admits that "the uranium mining boom in southeast Utah has long since passed, and oil and gas are not resources that exist in high quality or great quantity in Bears Ears."

Likewise, there are still a few monument opponents who believe there are profitable resources to be extracted from it. I believe they're also mistaken.

Bears Ears National Monument honors Native Americans by giving them "active co-management" of the monument.

False. Bears Ears will be managed by the federal government, which will "retain ultimate authority over the monument.” The proclamation specifically provides only for an advisory commission of the tribes to offer advice, but that's as far as their authority extends.

Everyone who opposes the monument is a racist.

There certainly is racism in San Juan County. It exists in Grand County too, and just about anywhere you can throw a dart at a map. But it doesn't manifest itself via opposition to this monument.

If anything, affluent, white, urban environmentalists have made racism a part of their marketing strategy and created their own Native American stereotypes, insisting that all tribal members share the same values and views. The fact is, there is as much diversity of opinion among the tribes as there is anywhere else.

If there's a need to categorize, then separate those who truly support wilderness for its intrinsic values, like solitude, habitat protection and archaeological preservation, versus those who want to exploit the monument's economic recreation/tourism potential.

For example, the pro-monument Inter-Tribal Coalition supports commercial rock climbing in the monument, insisting that climbers "will be committed and effective advocates for good land-use policies." And yet, for decades other tribes have fought vainly to protect sacred sites from persistently reckless and insensitive rock climbers.

Navajo vice president Jonathan Nez wrote, "Tribes have united to stand their ground against recreation, industry and development. The Bears Ears are sacred to our people."

Yet Navajo Ken Maryboy, the most vocal monument supporter from Utah, told the Navajo Times, "if Navajo could … co-manage this area, we will have money coming in from hunting, tourism, sightseeing." And Maryboy supported the now defunct "Grand Canyon Escalade," a massive tourist development that was to be built on the canyon rim, complete with trams and hotels.

Both are Navajo. But with starkly different views.

Ultimately, tourism is a clean, less destructive economy that can transform the West.

Have you been to Moab lately? It was the Grand Canyon Trust's Bill Hedden who said almost 20 years ago: “Everywhere we looked, natural resource professionals agreed that industrial-strength recreation holds more potential to disrupt natural processes on a broad scale than just about anything else. It’s a very tough problem affecting all of us.”

It would be gratifying if everyone, including the Grand Canyon Trust, remembered those words.

Monument supporters need to be honest about their intentions. If they support the monument because they think it will be a boon to the tourist economy and that the sheer numbers it will bring to the area will transform it in ways no one might have imagined just 20 years ago, if they think the rural West is better served by creating more Moabs, then by all means, they should support the monument.

But I think most monument proponents don't want that. And so they need more hard facts. A few months ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch insulted the tribes when he suggested that they "don't fully understand … a lot of the things" regarding Bears Ears, and said that they were "being manipulated."

Hatch was wrong to single out the tribes; had he broadened the scope of his remarks to include white, affluent, urban environmentalists of all ages, coast to coast, who still don't grasp the facts, he might have been on to something

Jim Stiles is the founding publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr and the author of "Brave New West."