'Stop the attacks': Tribal leaders, activists plead for end to 'political football' over Utah monuments

Standing by the steps inside the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City felt like deja vu for Olivia Juarez Thursday evening.

Juarez, the Latino community organizer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, was quick to point out that it was on this day four years ago that she and over 6,000 others stood outside the building to protest ahead of a presidential proclamation that ended up significantly reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

"You'll hear me use the word again more times than I'd like to because we've been here before," she said, staring at a group of a little more than 100 activists and Native Americans at the Capitol. "We've been at the Capitol, on the streets time and time again."

But Thursday's rally was completely different from that rally in 2017 because the sizes of the two monuments were restored nearly two months ago. This time around, the focus was on Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes as the state signals it likely will challenge the decision in the courts.

Those who attended the rally Thursday came to voice their displeasure with the tactic. Tribal leaders and activists argue that challenging President Joe Biden’s decision in court will end up costing millions of taxpayer money and will likely lead to nothing, based on previous court cases.

"A lawsuit challenging the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a horrendous misuse of state tax dollars," Juarez said.

Biden restored the sizes of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments through a pair of proclamations issued on Oct. 8. After signing it, he remarked that it "may be the easiest thing I have done as president. I mean it."

But the debate over the two monuments has been far from easy over the past few decades. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both Democrats, established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (1996) and Bears Ears National Monument (2016), respectively. Combined, they are about 3.25 million acres in size.

President Donald Trump, a Republican, signed a proclamation in 2017 that broke the monuments into five smaller areas with a total size a little more than one-third of the original boundaries. A review of the decision four years ago was one of the first items Biden, also a Democrat, ordered when he took office in January.

Most of Thursday's rally focused on what may happen next in the process. Cox, Reyes, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and high-ranking members of the Republican-led Utah Legislature all blasted Biden's decision back in October.

"President Biden's decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising," the group said in a combined statement, as news of the president's decision came to light. "For the past 10 months, we have consistently offered to work with the Biden Administration on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management. Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands."

At the time, they implied possible legal action. Then, on Oct. 22, just a couple of weeks after Biden signed the proclamation, Reyes began the process for law firms to assist the State of Utah in possible litigation over the legality of Biden's proclamations. The state has not submitted a legal challenge in federal courts so far.

Juarez said fees and expenses of a legal fight could easily reach $10 million. Brooke Larsen, a grassroots activist who spoke at the event, was quick to point out that many states, including Utah, have already failed in attempts to overturn a proclamation made under the Antiquities Acts.

Hopi Tribe Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe council member and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Malcolm Lehi, and Utah Dine Bikeyah Board Chairman Davis Filfred all traveled to the Utah Capitol to represent some of the Native American tribes who supported the original monument designations and then the restoration of the monuments.

"This is not a political football game, to be punting this back and forth," Nuvangyaoma said. "Gov. Cox, political leaders in your circle, stop. Stop the attacks."

Filfred feels the same way. As a representative for the Navajo Nation, he said he was never really able to meet with former Gov. Gary Herbert. He added he heard Cox say there should be an end to the "pingpong" back-and-forth battle, but he fears that a legal battle would do just that.

"That's exactly what we're doing, and I came here to say knock it off," Filfred said, as the crowd in front of him cheered.

The tribal leaders asserted Thursday that the money used in a court could easily be used to help out residents by the monuments or anywhere else in Utah. Filfred, for instance, looked at a large Christmas tree inside the Capitol and said there were many Navajo Nation residents who would like to light up a Christmas tree but they don't have any electricity. Some, he added, don't even have flushable toilets.

"All this money could go to good use," he continued. "I'm telling them that what we need to do is help other people."

Davis Filfred, chairman of the Utah Dine Bikeyah Board, speaks at a rally at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday in support of the recent restoration of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

The leaders added there are more important issues with the monuments at the moment, which they say are in desperate need of a new management plan to account for growing popularity for the area.

The land at Bears Ears is considered sacred and a homeland for Ute, Hopi, Navajo and Zuni tribes, Lehi explained. He said their ancestors have lived, hunted and gathered, prayed and participated in rituals there, among other activities, for ages. Those are all traditions that continue to this day.

Referencing the 2017 proclamation that shrank Bears Ears by 85% with two protected areas, Lehi said the land needed to be kept as a whole as it was originally designated because the land is a representation of the people.

"The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects but the landscape in itself entirely. It is the object itself worth tribal and federal protection," he said. "Bears Ears is connected living landscape where the people (are) in, not a collection of items — it must be protected."

That's on top of the drilling and mining concerns at both monuments, both the Native leaders and Larsen said they were concerned about.

Supporters of the recent restoration of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments attend a rally at the Utah Capitol Thursday. The group wants to Utah to not challenge the decision in court. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

One last argument those in attendance made Thursday is that they say most Utahns don't want the monuments to be altered again. A Colorado College study about public lands in the West published earlier this year found nearly three-fourths of Utah voters polled supported restoration of national monument protections.

Lehi added that the vast majority of public comments also supported the restoration of the monument.

But if the state does go forward with a lawsuit, it's likely that crowds will come back to the Utah Capitol in support of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Said Nuvangyaoma: "I think it's very clear that the people of the United States, the people of Utah, the people of tribal nations want these areas protected for other people to enjoy."