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The multitribal coalition pushing the Bears Ears conservation initiative has cut off discussions with Utah's congressional delegation after months of what it characterizes as inauthentic lip service to its interests, noncommittal assurances, refusal to engage its representatives and failures to meet deadlines.
The five-tribe group is focusing its national monument case exclusively on the White House as President Barack Obama's tenure enters its final year, according to a letter it sent Thursday to Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz.
The tribal group is incensed by the Utah delegation's apparent refusal to incorporate a conservation vision for the scenic and sacred landscape bound by San Juan County's Cedar Mesa and Abajo Mountains into the public lands initiative (PLI) Bishop and Chaffetz are leading. After nearly three years of work gathering input from several eastern Utah counties, the congressmen have yet to introduce legislation, blowing one deadline after another.
The delegation's failure to releases a draft bill by the Dec. 30 deadline was the last straw.
"Our strenuous efforts to participate in the PLI, and related proceedings before that over the course of the past six years have been consistently stonewalled. We have never been taken seriously," the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition wrote. "Our five sovereign tribal nations, and our carefully drafted comprehensive proposal, deserve far more than that."
Instead of working with Congress to establish a conservation zone around this 1.9 million-acre area, the tribal group, co-led by the Navajo and Hopi tribes, will seek a monument designation under the Antiquities Act. Such a "unilateral" action would inflame many rural Utahns, but the tribes contend state and local indifference to their proposal has given them no choice but to petition the president.
A spokeswoman for Chaffetz, whose district covers San Juan County, did not immediately respond to email and text messages.
Bishop, Chaffetz and their staffers have convened dozens of meetings with local stakeholders to craft proposals that were hoped to resolve longstanding land-use conflicts on Utah's large tracts of public domain. The idea was to get rural counties to agree to some wilderness and other conservation designations in exchange for lifting barriers to development in other less sensitive areas.
But the longer the Utah delegation takes to introduce public lands legislation, the more likely it will lose relevance. That's because the seven counties participated with the aim of forestalling a presidential monument designation in eastern Utah. With Obama leaving office in a year, the door for a deal is closing fast.
In a Dec. 22 appearance on The Salt Lake Tribune's online video chat Trib Talk, Chaffetz acknowledged that time is running out.
"We are very close to an introduction. I wish it happened earlier. It's a highly technical bill, blazing some new territory, but Rob Bishop has done a great job leading us, and hopefully we've got something everybody can buy into," Chaffetz said. He gave no new time frame for when legislation will be unveiled, but said it would have to pass in 2016.
"The only reason we haven't had a monument designation in Utah is we have shown promise in a collaborative way. This bill will get more designation than the president could ever do unilaterally," he continued. "There is optimism on all sides. Nobody gets everything they want, but we are really trying to provide certainty, and do so in a bottom-up process."
But the tribes are anything but optimistic. Their letter says they do prefer a congressional route, but can no longer wait for that. Meanwhile, the Obama administration already has demonstrated a willingness to designate Western monuments proposed by local conservation and tribal groups.
Few unprotected landscapes are more deserving of monument status than Cedar Mesa, supporters say. A nonprofit group called Utah Dine Bikeyah launched the Bears Ears campaign in 2010. It has sent delegates to Washington, D.C., eight times and attended numerous PLI meetings.
The region they seek to protect is the highlands west of Blanding and Bluff, inhabited centuries ago by Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, who left behind an archaeological record unparalleled in North America. The Navajo later lived there, but they were removed by force to make way for white settlement in the 19th century. Ever since, tribes have grieved over what they regard as abuses of their ancestral homeland, according to the letter to the Utah delegation.
"The looting and grave-robbing has been extensive, despicable, and continuous. Irresponsible mining and off-road vehicle use have torn up the ground," states the letter, signed by Hopi Vice Chairman Alfred Lomahquahu and Eric Descheenie, who serves as executive assistant to the Navajo Nation president. "Generations of misuse and other bad conduct have interfered with, and sometimes nearly destroyed, our gathering of medicines and herbs, sacred ceremonies, family gatherings, and individual prayers and offerings, all the things that heal us and the land."
The other tribes in the coalition are the Utes, Ute Mountain Utes and Zuni. At least 20 other tribes, most of which claim ancestral ties to Cedar Mesa and surrounding land, have singed on to the Bears Ears proposal, yet it was excluded from consideration by San Juan County leaders when they developed a PLI proposal, the coalition says.
That didn't stop the tribes from waging a write-in campaign when the county solicited public comment on various alternatives. Nearly two-thirds of the 457 comments favored Bears Ears, while the county's preferred "heavy development, low conservation" alternative received only two favorable comments, the coalition letter says.
The county's proposal does call for two conservation areas covering 700,000 acres and another 537,000 acres of wilderness, but it also designates a vast "energy zone" where mineral development would receive the highest priority.
County leaders contend they were obligated to consider input only from county residents, and just two tribes have reservations in San Juan County. Additionally, many Utah Navajo, including San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, oppose a national monument, claiming it would lock Navajo out.
Bears Ears backers say their proposal calls for tribal participation in management and will ensure access for traditional activities. Navajo opposition is largely limited to the Aneth Chapter House, one of seven in Utah, which has historically embraced mineral development, according to Herman Daniels Jr., a Navajo Nation delegate representing the Shonto, Naa'tsis'Áán, Oljato and Ts'ah Bii Kin chapters. The other six chapters have endorsed Bears Ears by wide margins.
"If Bishop agrees to give precedence to the Native Americans who live in Utah, then he should understand that we have already spoken, and with overwhelming unity, we have asked for Bears Ears to be protected," Daniels wrote in a Nov. 28 op-ed. "What we have said, and continue to say, is this: It is time to protect Bears Ears, and if it can't be passed in the coming months through the Public Lands Initiative, then the president should declare this living cultural landscape as a national monument for all."