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Washington • Gov. Gary Herbert urged President Barack Obama in a letter Monday against using his unilateral power to designate a new national monument in Utah, though Herbert's office says it isn't aware of any specific threat to do so.
"There is a right way and a wrong way to determine land-management decisions," Herbert wrote in the letter released to the news media. "Unilateral monuments are the wrong way. Ground-up, open, public processes are the right way."
Fears among Utah's rural residents and elected officials about a new monument were stirred recently after Obama administration representatives met with several Indian tribal leaders in southeastern Utah to hear their pitch about protecting nearly 2 million acres of a region called the Bears Ears.
The Interior Department downplayed the meeting as a regular gathering between federal agency heads and the leaders of the sovereign tribes.
Cody Stewart, Herbert's policy director, said there was nothing specific the governor's office was hearing about a possible monument that sparked the letter, but Herbert wanted to make clear his long-standing position.
"There are a lot of rumors out there [about a possible monument] but it speaks to the very problem with these presidential, unilateral designations in that they're always rumor up to the point of reality," Stewart said. "We wanted to make the governor's position loud and clear."
As referenced in Herbert's letter, some corners of Utah are still seething over President Bill Clinton's 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that protected 1.8 million acres in southern Utah. The announcement of that monument came after several denials of any pending action from the Clinton administration in response to Utah queries, and the president stood in Arizona to officially sign the order.
Herbert said that monument, and the way it was designated, is the "source of mistrust, frustration and acrimony toward the federal government among local residents," and that "I am certain that another presidential monument in Utah will likewise result in decades of resentment and conflict."
The governor suggested Obama back the years-in-progress Public Lands Initiative, by Utah Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, that seeks to bring all sides of the public-lands debate to the table to agree on setting aside certain areas and clearing others for development.
The 1906 Antiquities Act gives a president broad power to name a monument, which restricts certain activities such as oil and gas development, and Obama has said he will use that authority if Congress continues to block legislation protecting treasured landscapes. His administration, though, has said his preference is to work with local officials and noted that some areas have sought out monument designations.
Tribal leaders have requested federal protection for the Bears Ears area, pointing to its importance in the history and culture of American Indians. Several environmental groups also have pushed for a national monument.
Former Utah state Archaeologist Kevin T. Jones said in an op-ed piece published in Sunday's Salt Lake Tribune that he has urged the president to use his power to protect sensitive regions of the state, especially those sacred to American Indians.
"Utah's active disinterest in caring for its magnificent archaeological heritage led me to write to President Obama and ask that he use the Antiquities Act to designate one or more national monuments to honor and protect Utah's archaeological and Native American heritage," Jones wrote. "The state's disdain for these treasures and cultures leaves no other option. I urge others to join me in asking our president to act."
Jones was fired and the position of state archaeologist eliminated in 2011. The Herbert administration blamed budget cuts ordered by the Legislature.