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A schism is opening among Utah Navajos over whether to protect sacred lands surrounding the Bears Ears Buttes with a new national monument.
A multi-tribe American Indian group, urging protection for a 1.9 million-acre region south of Canyonlands National Park, says San Juan County has excluded tribal perspectives in crafting a proposal that could shape public-lands policy for generations to come.
Meantime, some local Navajos have split from the group, worried a federal designation would impede tribes' access to the scenic highlands west of Blanding.
"True Utah grass-roots Navajo strongly oppose national monument designation," said Rebecca Benally, a first-term San Juan County commissioner and Navajo.
Earlier this week, the County Commission signed off on a plan for inclusion in the Utah Public Lands Initiative, spearheaded by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, adopting a resolution opposing any "unilateral" designation of a national monument there by President Barack Obama.
The move upset the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, which argues the plan fails to adequately protect numerous sacred lands Cottonwood Wash, Arch Canyon, Beef Basin and Recapture Wash while including many special areas in zones earmarked for energy development.
The county proposal calls for conserving nearly 1 million acres, but the inter-tribal group fears it falls short.
"Their recommendation barely includes the Bears Ears," said Willie Grayeyes, a Utah Navajo who leads Utah Dine Bikeyah. "The rest of the lands we have interest in designating as a national conservation area or national monument have been eliminated under their plan."
Utah Dine Bikeyah is the group that initiated the Bears Ears conservation proposal, which 25 tribes now endorse, including the Hopi and other Puebloan groups, the Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The ancestors of several Puebloan tribes occupied Cedar Mesa for centuries, leaving behind cliff dwellings, burial sites and countless artifacts that have been subject to looting. Everyone agrees the region holds places of spiritual significance to the Southwest's tribes, which should have access to pray and gather natural materials for food and traditional ceremonies.
But Marie Holiday, a Navajo member who served on the county's public lands advisory council, accused Dine Bikeyah of "closing the door to your own people."
"They wanted all that to be wilderness. I didn't think that was right," Holiday, who lives in Monument Valley, told the commission Tuesday.
"It's not going to help our people," she said. "I know they want to preserve, but we are here. We need to use that Cedar Mesa. We still get our wood from there. My grandmother went to get some herbal stuff, and I know where it is, and pinyon, too.
"If there's a national monument, we are not going to have access to it."
Grayeyes said such criticism is "totally misleading."
"Under any form of land designation," he said, "Native Americans would have access under religious freedom."
Equal measures of angst and excitement have been simmering in Utah recently over the possibility of a major monument designation in Utah the first in the 19 years since President Bill Clinton stunned southern Utah with his creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Utah's all-Republican congressional delegation sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, insisting the federal government should refrain from imposing any new monuments here, saying "unilateral" use of the Antiquities Act would derail a process hoped to resolve long-standing land use disputes in eight eastern Utah counties.
"Continued discussions involving the potential use of the Antiquities Act undermine public processes such as the [public lands initiative]," the delegation's letter states, "as they breed an atmosphere of distrust and discourage participants from working amicably to resolve conflict."
Jewell weighed in Thursday, acknowledging that her staff has met with tribal groups to hear their pitch for conserving Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa.
"There's always interest in protecting special areas," she told reporters at Oxbow Park, where she was applauding Salt Lake City's participation in the Let's Move! Outside initiative in a joint appearance with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. "Utah has some special areas that don't have full protection.
"The president controls his own pen. I don't control his pen," Jewell said. "We have not done a designation without hearing from the communities and a broad array of people. We have been committed to a process of hearing from a multitude of voices."
Jewell said she knows of no timeline for deciding whether to establish a monument in Utah, but she promised locals would have a say including the tribes.
"It's very important that we have a respectful government-to-government dialogue, between the U.S. government and tribal governments," she said. "They have a very important voice at the table. A lot of the history and culture of the nations that are today's modern Indian nations have come from these areas that warrant protection. It's not OK to ignore that point of view."
The inter-tribal coalition has always said it prefers a legislative designation. But if the Bishop process doesn't bear fruit, the group intends to seek a monument designation.
In its rebuttal letter to the delegation's letter, the coalition implored Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to take the tribes' conservation vision seriously as they craft their public lands bill.
"Despite more than two years of dialogue with local stakeholders, we are concerned that the Public Lands Initiative process and San Juan County have thus far failed to reach out to, consult, and respond to feedback from tribes within or outside of Utah," the group's letter to the delegation states.
The letter notes six Navajo chapter houses in Utah and a majority of San Juan County residents endorsed the Bears Ears conservation proposal during a public comment period.
"Despite this local support, the county's proposal ignores tribal input," the letter says. "Worse still, tribes from outside of Utah have been afforded no opportunity to provide feedback or engage in the process."
County leaders have made a point of excluding stakeholders from outside the county, even though the Zuni and Hopi tribes trace their ancestry to the region and Cedar Mesa draws national interest.
Benally said some Utah Navajos do not appreciate what they consider out-of-state interference in local affairs. And the Aneth chapter of the tribe plans to run a resolution opposing a national monument.
"These are my constituents. I have listened for the last seven months," the first-year commissioner said. "The Bears Ears coalition is an environmental-funded group and is not reflective of true Utah Navajo people."
Benally's position disappoints her predecessor, Mark Maryboy, who now serves on the Utah Dine Bikeyah board.
"She is not educated on the issue and is ignorant of the situation. The Antiquities Act has a strong tie with Native American language and culture," Maryboy said. "Native Americans do not recognize state lines, fences, border lines. The entire North American continent and the Earth is Mother Earth."