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It only took 24 hours for Gov. Gary Herbert to back away from a statement he would be open to a new national monument in Utah if it was part of an effort to settle land use issues on 18 million acres of southeastern Utah.
"I'm not too happy about national monuments, but if that's what it takes to get the compromise done … that's part of compromise," Herbert said Thursday during his monthly KUED news conference.
But the next day, Herbert told county commissioners gathered at the Utah Association of Counties conference that he would vigorously oppose any monument that didn't have support of local officials and the community.
He reiterated his viewpoint on a Facebook post that same day, where he said he would never support a monument in Utah "unless it has the support of locally elected officials and the rural communities impacted."
Herbert's spokesman, Jon Cox, said the governor was not changing his position.
"I think when someone sees in the headlines that Governor Herbert supports national monuments, that's obviously concerning, but Governor Herbert's take is, 'Look, I'm not going to support anything that you as county commissioners don't want,' " Cox said. "I don't view that as a reversal. I think it's more of a clarification."
Members of five American Indian tribes asked Congress and President Barack Obama in October to designate the Bears Ears National Monument on 1.9 million acres in southern Utah. The group said the area contains 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites that are sacred to dozens of tribes.
Protections for portions area although not necessarily through a national monument, but potentially through national conservation or wilderness areas are expected to be included when the Public Lands Initiative legislation, cobbled together by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and local leaders and interest groups, is released within the next few weeks or months.
Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, which supports protection for the Bears Ears, said he was surprised to hear Herbert use a figure Thursday of 1.6 million acres for possible protection considerably larger than the 1 million acres of conservation areas and wilderness the county is considering.
Ewing said it is important that the governor not look solely to elected officials for their support of protections, but listen to the community as well. At a comment meeting on the proposal, Ewing said nearly 90 percent of those who testified supported the Bears Ears proposal.
"I think there needs to be a larger discussion than just those elected officials," Ewing said.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, whose district includes San Juan County where the proposed Bears Ears monument is located, said he opposes a monument designation and believes other elected officials in the area would, as well.
"I don't think they're in favor of that at all," he said.
Noel said the Antiquities Act was created to protect archaeological artifacts and sites, but there has been no damage to the artifacts in the area, despite claims to the contrary.
"I'm absolutely opposed to it," Noel said, but he said he would be open to discussions of conservation areas or wilderness.
Noel believes the governor misspoke when he said he would be open to a monument designation not that he changed his position.
That said, Noel believes Obama will probably designate the monument anyway, as both President Bill Clinton and President George Bush did late in their terms.
"I think it's just one of those things presidents want to do," Noel said. "I think he's going to do it, personally. That's what all these presidents do in their last year."
Ewing agreed that, unless Bishop is willing to listen to important parties who have an interest in the public lands, it makes it unlikely the compromise bill could pass and "the only likely thing is a monument, and it makes me sad that we couldn't work together as a state and local officials to make a solution for ourselves."
Herbert's Republican opponent, former Overstock.com CEO Jonathan Johnson, said the governor said in 2010 he would get Utah ownership and management of federal lands inside the state, but Utahns are still waiting. Johnson said he is committed to state ownership of public lands as governor and added that Herbert's recent statements on the monument designation "show a lack of negotiation skills."
"He is willing to concede yet another point without receiving anything in return," Johnson said.