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The Utah Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution Wednesday strongly opposing any new national monuments in the state without approval of lawmakers and the governor, adding fuel to the already heated debate over the proposed Bears Ears Monument in southeastern Utah.
"You expect us to stand and do nothing and say this is futile? Well, I think it's futile to do nothing," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. "We've got to at least stand and represent the people we've been elected to represent. When you look at what this will do to the community down there … this is going to destroy their lifestyle."
Supporters of the Bears Ears National Monument have urged President Barack Obama to set aside 1.9 million acres of land that American Indian tribes in the area consider sacred, where they gathered firewood and nuts. The historic lands are the location of extensive archaeological sites, as well.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who asked lawmakers to pass the resolution during a special session on Wednesday, is expected to sign it.
"Governor Herbert appreciates the support of the overwhelming majority of Utahns and their elected representatives on this important issue," said Herbert's spokesman Jon Cox. "The message sent today to the White House is clear: Utahns do not want a new national monument."
The proposal has pitted groups of American Indians against each other, with opponents, like San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, arguing that they don't want to see sacred lands designated as a national monument. Instead, they favor a smaller area designated as a national conservation area under a public lands bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
Backers of the monument staged a rally Wednesday at the Capitol, seeking to demonstrate unity among tribes in the region and paint Benally and others as a small group of dissenters. Former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, who was beaten by Benally in the last election, cited letters of support from the governing bodies of the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, the Hopi Nation, the Pueblo Nation and the National Congress of American Indians, as well as hundreds of letters from individuals who live near Bears Ears.
"There are those who try to claim that Native Americans are divided over the protection of Bears Ears. This is not true. We are united," Maryboy said, before delivering the letters to Herbert, "so there is no misunderstanding."
But a group called the Descendants of Kaayelii says members of that band have an even more direct claim to the Bears Ears land. The band says it was distinct from the Navajo Nation and lived as free natives on the Bears Ears land until forced to relocate to the reservation, but hopes to be able to return someday to their homeland.
"If the monument happens, that would kill any chance they have to get a home of their own," said Jovanii Nez. "It's about right and wrong. … They're the only tribe that have actual facts to prove they are from that area."
Even polling data can't agree.
A pair of polls released in the last two days produced dramatically different results. A poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for Creation Justice Ministries found that 71 percent of Utahns supported the creation of the Bears Ears monument. On Wednesday, a contradictory poll by Dan Jones & Associates for UtahPolicy.com found that just 17 percent of Utahns want the president to create the monument.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, the Senate sponsor of the resolution, said the designation would turn the monument into a tourist destination and jeopardize the artifacts on the land.
"It's going to be invaded by tourists and that's one thing they really don't need, their sacred ground being invaded by people from all over the country and all over the world," Hinkins said. "When this is designated as a monument, that's inviting people to come into their cemetery, basically."
The minority Democrats argued that the resolution was not only pointless, but was probably counterproductive. "I'm not sure what it does to take this resolution and throw it in the face of the president," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City. "You will multiply the possibility of the president [declaring the monument]."
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said it likely doesn't matter what the Legislature does to voice opposition to the monument, because the Obama administration has utter disregard for the states.
"We're going to get transgender bathrooms whether we want them or not. We're going to get edicts on [monuments]," Ivory said, predicting that Obama would designate three monuments in Utah before leaving office.
The resolution passed by the Legislature is non-binding and doesn't commit the state to any course of action. It expresses the Legislature and governor's opposition to the creation of a new monument without the consent of the governor and Legislature, and requests that the attorney general take any legal action available to stop the monument.
It also requests that Congress pass legislation preventing any future monument designations in Utah.
Bad blood lingers among many in the Legislature over President Bill Clinton's 1996 designation of the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to the surprise of Utah's congressional delegation and governor.
But Jacqueline Orton, widow of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, who lost his congressional seat due in part to the monument designation, said the process for the Bears Ears designation has been vastly different. Jacqueline Orton said her husband asked the Clinton administration repeatedly about a monument designation and didn't find out about the designation until he got a 2 a.m. phone call from the president aboard Air Force One.
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