This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Washington • The Interior Department said Monday that a recent meeting between federal officials and tribal leaders in southwestern Utah was part of a listening tour and downplayed questions of whether it could lead to a new national monument.
Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, National Parks Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, a deputy Bureau of Land Management official and an Agriculture Department undersecretary met earlier this month with tribal leaders who were pitching a plan to preserve about 1.9 million acres in the southeastern corner of Utah. The federal officials came at the request of the tribes, Interior press secretary Jessica Kershaw said Monday.
"The Obama administration is committed to engaging in meaningful government-to-government dialogue on a wide range of issues of importance to Indian country," Kershaw said, adding that administration officials regularly meet with tribes at their request and do not dictate the agenda.
Asked if such a meeting might hint at a new national monument designation, Kershaw said it was simply a meeting the federal officials were asked to attend.
"It demonstrates a commitment to working with the tribes on what they would like to see happen in that area," she said.
But the meeting, held in the shadow of the towering Bears Ears mesas, raised concerns about a possible new national monument designation by President Barack Obama, who has said repeatedly he will take advantage of the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve treasured landscapes if Congress fails to act.
Such fears about a president's unilateral designations are rooted in President Bill Clinton's use of the Antiquities Act to set aside 1.8 million acres of southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument a move he made without consulting local or state officials and which was announced from Arizona.
"It sounds hauntingly familiar to what a congressional committee called a behind-closed-doors breach of trust in the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in 1996," said state Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.
Ivory, who also runs the American Lands Council and fights for state control of Western public lands, noted the Bears Ears meeting came on the heels of several monument designations by Obama in nearby states.
"It is a sad state," Ivory said, "when land use and land planning bypasses locally elected officials who are responsible for the conditions and health, safety and welfare of the land."
Leaders of the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi tribes gathered for the meeting in early July and were met by Washburn, Jarvis, BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis and Butch Blazer, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and environment.
Washburn wrote in a blog post that the Obama administration is "listening carefully to the tribes."
"We look forward to working with tribal leaders who described to us their responsibility to honor the spirits of their ancestors who continue to animate this landscape and the equally important obligation to raise children and future leaders who share an unbroken connection, through this landscape, with their ancestors," Washburn wrote. "We share the desire of tribal leaders to protect sacred places and leave the Earth better than we found it."
The proposed Bears Ears National Conservation Area, backed by Utah's Navajos, stretches from the southern edge of Canyonlands National Park to the San Juan River and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in the south, and from approximately U.S. Highway 191 on the east to the Colorado River on the west. The area west of Monticello, Blanding and Bluff includes Cedar Mesa, a region rich with archaeological treasures, including native burial sites and dwellings.
The tribe's proposal is larger than three other plans to expand federal land protections in the region including the Greater Canyonlands notion from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, four conservation areas pitched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and another from Friends of Cedar Mesa.
Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, a nonprofit aimed at preserving the Bears Ears area, said the Antiquities Act was
discussed but it was not the main thrust of the meeting. Noyes said preservation, ideally, would be done through legislation.
"The intention of it, I think, it was for sovereign tribal nations to meet nation to nation with the [U.S.] government," Noyes said. "It wasn't to ask for a national monument but to say, 'We're really interested in protecting this area.' "
Noyes added that the meeting wasn't a secret several Navajo newspapers covered the lead-up to the gathering and that it was appropriate that the tribes brief government leaders on the sacred nature of and threats to lands under federal control.
Kershaw, the Interior spokeswoman, said that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell remains committed to working with the Utah congressional delegation and others to look for options on preserving lands that need protection.