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Making good on his recent threat to investigate Bears Ears supporters, Utah lawmaker Mike Noel on Wednesday persuaded colleagues on the state Constitutional Defense Council to ask Attorney General Sean Reyes to "ferret out" environmentalists' ties to the tribal groups proposing a national monument in San Juan County.
Without offering much in the way of proof, Noel, a Republican representative from Kanab, said the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is being manipulated by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance or other groups into pushing for a national monument. Such a designation, he said, would actually impede tribal members' wood gathering and other traditional activities on Cedar Mesa and other areas covered by the 1.9 million-acre monument proposal.
One Navajo Nation Council called the move insulting.
"We speak for ourselves and our tribal members who have overwhelmingly called on us to make sure Bears Ears becomes a national monument," said Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council delegate who represents Utah's Mexican Water, Aneth, Teec Nos Pos, Tolikan and Red Mesa chapters.
The elected councils of five Colorado Plateau tribes Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, Hopi and Ute have formed the coalition to urge President Barack Obama to use the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears before he leaves office in January. The proposal itself was developed by a grass-roots nonprofit known as Utah Dine Bikeyah, which has landed endorsements for a monument from 24 nearby tribes. Many trace their ancestral heritage to Cedar Mesa, which is covered in tens of thousands of archaeological sites left by the Anasazi.
Noel denounces this tribal buy-in as a "charade" manufactured by meddling outside environmental groups that pay Utah Dine Bikeyah board members and bankroll their lobbying forays to Washington. His call for a probe into the group's finances and relationships drew numerous rebukes.
Under pressure from the lone Democrat at the table Wednesday, Rep. Brian King, of Salt Lake City, the Constitutional Defense Council expanded its resolution and will probe all groups involved with Bears Ears, both for and against the monument.
King said Noel's probe smacks of a "witch hunt" and falls outside the scope of the council's statutory duties, which focus on asserting state sovereignty against an overbearing federal government. Investigating those with whom the council has a political disagreement is an "intimidation bullying tactic," King said.
Noel says a lot is at stake for Utah, claiming Obama is contemplating a "megamonument" that could include San Rafael Swell and expansion of the Grand Staircase.
"It's a constitutional issue," Noel said. "I would like to have more information and understanding of who are the players."
If lawmakers want to know, all they have to do is pick up a phone, said Utah Dine Bikeyah Chairman Willie Grayeyes.
"Our door is open, and our financials are all online," Grayeyes said. "The state of Utah should consider calling us and asking us how we are funded before launching an investigation. We buy our office furniture at the secondhand store, we have dozens of volunteers and our board members are all unpaid."
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk likened Noel's proposal to espionage conducted by Southern states against black people during the Civil Rights era.
"It's shameful that in 2016, the state of Utah is using similar tactics against tribal nations," said Lopez-Whiteskunk, councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and co-chairwoman of the tribal coalition. "As tribal people and nations, we continue to stand in solidarity and urge President Obama to designate the Bears Ears National Monument."
It is widely assumed the president is poised to act on the tribes' request, rekindling long-simmering resentment over President Bill Clinton's 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has placed an anti-monument resolution on the agenda of the May 18 special session of the Legislature, saying it is irresponsible for Obama to even contemplate a Bears Ears monument without consulting local leaders.
Utah environmentalists, meanwhile, make no secret of their support for Bears Ears.
Round River Conservation Studies, a Salt Lake City-based group devoted to ecological research and education, assisted Utah Dine Bikeyah in developing the Bears Ears proposal, initially envisioned as a national conservation area authorized by Congress. The group later hired a Round River staffer, Gavin Noyes, as its executive director, but the group's leadership consist entirely of Navajo and Ute tribal members devoted to traditional religious practices.
Among the many people who have donated to Utah Dine Bikeyah is David Garbett, a Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney who flatly rejects the idea that his group exerts any influence over the tribal groups.
Noel's probe is insulting and will likely backfire, he said. Numerous people inside and outside of San Juan County support Utah Dine Bikeyah's work, which is uniting tribal members across the state and reservation boundaries, he added.
"That's called participating in a public process. Yet they are treating supporters like a gang of drug dealers, like they are out doing something illicit," Garbett said. "[Noel] is showing that the president really needs to step in."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8713.