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Lawmakers want to build Bears Ears visitors center to offset national monument impact

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Lyman and Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, would establish a new Bears Ears Visitors Center Task Force.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Lyman and Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, would establish a new Bears Ears Visitors Center Task Force.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah legislators at odds over Bears Ears boundaries have joined up to push for a new visitors center to offset impact from the large growth in tourism since the southeastern Utah area became a national monument.

“The creation of Bears Ears National Monument, which I support, continues to dramatically impact the ability to protect and preserve cultural and historical artifacts as well as demand for infrastructure and other resources,” Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, said Monday during a news conference at the state Capitol.

He and Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, are co-sponsoring a bill to create a Bears Ears Visitors Center Advisory Committee that would study the creation of a visitors center. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation and Zuni Tribe — the tribes identified in the presidential proclamation by then-President Barack Obama that established the national monument in 2016 — would take control of the facility under the bill.

The tribes would be tasked with making recommendations about the center’s location, management, functions, funding “and how it can serve as a repository for Native American knowledge and history,” Owens said.

The bill would also ask the tribes to act in time so the Legislature can take action to create the visitor center during next year’s general session.

Lyman, a former San Juan County commissioner, said he and others worked for four years in advance of the designation with interest groups and tribes to come to “what we thought was a sensible resolution in a designation as a national conservation area.”

Lyman and others worried the national monument designation would endanger the artifacts and objects in the area “that it was pretending to protect,” he said.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, left, and Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, exit a joint press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. The bipartisan legislation they are co-sponsoring will help to establish a new Bears Ears Visitors Center Task Force.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, left, and Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, exit a joint press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. The bipartisan legislation they are co-sponsoring will help to establish a new Bears Ears Visitors Center Task Force.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As the federal government took responsibility for the land through the designation, Lyman said county leaders haven’t seen “the responsibility come to fruition, all we’ve seen is the control part.”

Bears Ears was created in the waning days of the Obama administration after he sent then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to visit the remote region in San Juan County that is said to be an archaeological treasure trove boasting more than 100,000 cultural artifacts from Native Americans who hold the area sacred. The designation of the 1.35-million-acre monument brought cries of protest from Utah’s conservative leaders who accused Obama of abusing his authority under the Antiquities Act.

Former President Donald Trump later slashed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly by half to 1 million acres and broke up Bears Ears into two separate units totaling 228,700 acres in December 2017 through an executive order.

In 2016, 90 people signed the visitors register. Now, 350 people are often there at any given moment, Lyman noted.

Owens said he wants more wildlands to be protected “and I strongly support the restoration of Bears Ears monument boundary to the original boundaries.”

“Clearly, there’s going to be a lot that Rep. Lymand and I disagree on,” Owens said.

When joining the Legislature, Owens said he had his “suspicions” about Lyman. But while talking to him, he found that they had common ground.

“And regardless of how we see the boundaries for the monument, we know certain things. We know that visitation is up in the area 72% since the monument was designated. We also know that very little has been done to help those visitors become informed and to visit the area in a respectful manner,” Owens said.

But he said he and Lyman agree that the history of the area’s indigenous people “is truly remarkable” and the cultural and geological resources “deserve protection and to be celebrated.”

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Owens and Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, would establish a new Bears Ears Visitors Center Task Force.
Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Owens and Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, would establish a new Bears Ears Visitors Center Task Force.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“This is not an effort for the state Legislature to control the narrative on this. ... It’s a gesture on the part of the state Legislature to do what we can to support that effort, to support the tribes in making that effort” to preserve the land, Lyman said.

He thanked Owens for working with him on the bill.

“Hopefully it will set the stage that this is not a confrontation, it’s an opportunity,” he said.

Gov. Spencer Cox committed $100 million in state funds to help recreation in the area, Owens said. The bill does not yet have a fiscal note, but funding will be needed to fund meetings and hire a consultant, and eventually build a visitors’ center.

Lyman said lawmakers expect the project to be largely funded by the federal government.

Senate President Stuart Adams, along with other Senate leaders, spoke in support of the proposal on Monday.

“I’m not sure why anybody wouldn’t want a visitors center when you’ve got that much of our state and those many acres that have been set aside for people to enjoy,” Adams, R-Layton, told reporters.

Last month, President Joe Biden said he will have the U.S. Department of Interior conduct a review of the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Utah’s congressional delegation as well as state officials including Gov. Spencer Cox, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Adams, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, cautioned Biden in a statement that enlarging the monuments’ boundaries through executive order will “deepen divides.”