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Utah lawmakers advance pushback resolutions on Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments

SHARE Utah lawmakers advance pushback resolutions on Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's pushback against two presidential monument designations 20 years apart advanced Thursday with Senate committee votes that approved resolutions to undo the most recent and drastically shrink the other.

Both resolutions, which have already passed in the House, now go to the full Senate for a vote.

HCR12, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, proposes to shrink the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to no more than a half-million acres. It was heard before the Senate Business and Labor Committee, which voted 5-1 to approve the measure.

The resolution asking for the rescission of the Bears Ears National Monument, HCR11, was heard before the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. It also passed, with a 5-2 vote.

Public comment in the latter hearing was abruptly cut off after the audience broke into applause in response to a statement by a resolution critic, despite warnings by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, that such behavior wouldn't be tolerated.

Capitol security escorted several people from the hearing room, including Salt Lake middle school teacher Anna Christiansen, who continued to talk after public comment was stopped.

After being told she was interrupting the proceedings, Christiansen said she yelled at the committee members to get off their cellphones and pay attention to their constituents, calling the lawmakers' behavior “disrespectful."

“I definitely used my teacher voice,” she said.

A number of people left the hearing even before the incident.

“I’m upset about the process,” said Dennis Ferguson, of Salt Lake City, adding that limiting speakers to just 75 seconds of testimony was “disgusting.”

Dayton, however, said she had no choice but to impose time limits on public comment given how many Bears Ears supporters packed the room and because the committee had to complete its business by 6 p.m.

She urged those who had more to say or didn't get to speak to email their individual senators to convey their feelings.

Testimony in both Senate hearings swirled around common themes of process, access, protection of landscapes, economic impacts of monuments and the desires of people — locals, Utah residents in general, and the American public.

"Life really depends on where you stand," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and sponsor of the Bears Ears resolution.

Hughes emphasized that critics in the room — many from Salt Lake County — would likely feel differently if a monument designation encumbered their property or livelihood.

The speaker added that it was insulting for some of the critics to assert that the feelings of San Juan County residents — the majority of whom he said are opposed to the monument — don't matter or that they don't have respect for the land.

Multiple resolution critics, however, said a potential rescission of the monument designation ignores the wishes of the American public, who have an ownership stake in the land.

That led Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, to counter: "This was part of Utah the last time I checked. … We should at least have some sort of say so on how things are run."

The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County is largely owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service and will remain so, even with the establishment of a Bears Ears advisory committee to provide guidance on land management decisions.

The land was in BLM and Forest Service hands prior to the designation and would remain so if the monument designation is overturned.

Lawmakers say they don't dispute that some areas of the Bears Ears region deserve protection, but the scope of the monument proclamation, the geographic size of the monument and the process fuel their opposition.

Hughes said the list of protected features in the "prescriptive" monument proclamation include deafening silence, squirrels, skunks, spruce evergreens and juniper — a list he said falls far outside the scope of the Antiquities Act.

Critics complained that Utah's top political leaders are ignoring the wishes of Native American tribal leaders on the destiny of Bears Ears and the resolution is an affront.

"Denying this will have major consequences," said Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah.

Others spoke of the need to protect the vastness of the region, its solitude and its scenic landscapes.

Depending on who spoke, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — discussed earlier in the day — has either brought an infusion of cash and economic development to the region or chased away good paying jobs and families' ability to live and work in their communities.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said the 1996 designation by then-President Bill Clinton has been bad for the area, leading to declining school enrollment and locking up North American's largest coal reserves — which, he added, are not where any of the antiquities are located.

Noel Poe, with Escalante Partners, disputed those ill effects and cited a string of new hotels and businesses opening in the region.

The hours of testimony Thursday made clear that neither side appears willing to budge from their position, although Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, said he hopes there's sentiment to back off a total unraveling of Bears Ears.

"I still favor an agreement or a compromise" to resolve what's devolved into a hostile situation, said Shiozawa, who voted no on passing the Bears Ears resolution.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche