Federal agencies have released a draft management plan for the controversial Bears Ears National Monument comprising 1.36 million acres in southeast Utah, detailing what recreation opportunities will be allowed, the use of motorized and mechanized vehicles as well as impacts to current grazing allotments.

The preferred alternative released by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, which own the land, is the result of what they say came after fruitful discussions with cooperating agencies, the state of Utah, and the Bears Ears Commission.

The Bears Ears Commission — made up of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni — provided input during the development of the draft plan, which is now out for public comment for 90 days.

The public can comment on the agency’s E-planning website. A series of public meetings are also planned, but details have yet to be released.

“The publication of the draft resource management plan and associated environmental impact statement begins the next step in the Bears Ears National Monument planning process,” said BLM Utah State Director Greg Sheehan. “I greatly appreciate the extensive knowledge provided by the commission and the state, and welcome substantive public input as the vital next step in considering the alternatives in the draft.”

What the plan contemplates

Hiking includes leaving all existing trails open to use and could designate new trails. It also allows hiking off trails, with evaluations to be made for potential closure of those areas if the trails would impact cultural resources or interfere with raptor nesting. There would also be a need for special permits if the activity involves large groups. In terms of camping, all dispersed camping will remain and there could be new campgrounds and camp sites designated.

Climbing remains essentially unchanged, with the caution that it is not allowed in areas of culturally sensitive sites. The draft plan also calls for the replacement of bolts, anchors and fixed gear on existing climbing and canyoneering routes for safety reasons, requiring approval from agencies for new areas that include those items.

The plan says motorized and mechanized vehicle access would remain unchanged, with the draft plan identifying existing routes. Certain areas, such as designated wilderness will have limitations. Conservative GOP leaders in Utah have long been concerned about the closure of routes that have been historically used for generations not being included in that access.

Grazing does change. According to the draft plan, the preferred alternative maintains 88% of grazing in the monument covering more than 1.1 million acres. But as leases are voluntarily relinquished by holders, they would be permanently retired from future grazing.

In terms of mining, the plan honors valid existing rights but all future mining or any other resource extraction via new claims or leases is off the table. The area is rich in uranium deposits and includes the nation’s only operating uranium processing facility — White Mesa.

The controversial monument has been the focus of three presidential administrations, starting with President Barack Obama, who declared the designation in 2016, followed by President Donald Trump who reduced it in size drastically, and finally, with President Joe Biden who restored the vast majority of the land it occupies.

The state of Utah, joined by impacted counties, filed suit against the federal government over the designation, with the litigation subsequently tossed.

This last legislative session, lawmakers passed a resolution withdrawing the state of Utah from memorandum of understanding with federal land management agencies to trade out 167,500 acres of school trust lands, asserting the negotiations had not happened in good faith. School trust lands hold leases typically for energy development with the revenue benefiting its beneficiaries — Utah school children.

The measure, HJR26, was sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who said during legislative testimony negotiations had fallen apart.

“Unfortunately, despite the fact that we had a federal agreement and federal legislation, plus state authorization to move forward with that transfer — as things stand now, talks on what the future of what Bears Ears Monument will be have deteriorated to such an extent that it’s no longer in the best interests of our school kids in those communities,” to move forward, Snider said.

Critics of the plan say about a million acres of the monument are designated as “remote,” which curtails access. So while there still may be allowable mining or grazing, getting there is not an option or extraordinarily difficult.

In a letter sent late last year to Interior Department Secretary Deb Halaand and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack (the agency oversees the Forest Service) the issue of public access was raised as a paramount concern by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, GOP legislative leadership and all members of Utah’s congressional delegation.

“As you consider the management of the Bears Ears National Monument, we strongly discourage you from taking action that would limit public access to the area. Although the state’s status as a cooperating agency prevents listing the details here, this draft plan and associated alternatives represent a shockingly narrow and restrictive use of this land, one that would have genuine and widespread negative impacts on nearly ALL users of this diverse landscape,” the letter said.

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The proposed plan brought praise by some conservation organizations.

“The draft plan reflects a true collaboration among the five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. It shows a strong commitment to collaborative management that provides for the conservation of wildlife habitat and protection of cultural and natural resources, while also safeguarding hunting and angling, and ensuring continued access for responsible outdoor recreation,” said David Willms, associate vice president of public lands at the National Wildlife Federation.