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Philanthropic groups, including movie star Leonardo DiCaprio's foundation, have seeded a fund aimed at building "community engagement" with the new Bears National Monument in southeast Utah.
The announcement Thursday from the Menlo Park, Calif.-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation comes as Utah political leaders are vowing to pull out all stops to invalidate President Barack Obama's 1.3-million-acre designation and congressional representatives have promised to block funding for the new monument.
The charitable groups pledged $1.5 million that will bolster collaborative management of the new monument and ensure inclusion of a diversity of local voices, according to Michael Scott, Hewlett's acting program director.
"The president's action to protect Bears Ears inspired us to create this fund, which is an investment in the local communities and the tribes and their ability to serve as the best stewards of the monument as well as the most capable creators of economic opportunity for the region around the monument," Scott said.
American Indian leaders, whose tribes have won an advisory management role for the new monument, thanked the foundations for supporting their goal of honoring lands they consider sacred.
"We are so grateful for this philanthropic fund, which will provide much-needed resources to help us manage and protect this important monument, for our tribal nations, future generations, all who love this magnificent place, and for all Americans," said Walter Phelps, a Navajo Nation Council delegate.
But Utah leaders and local residents who advocated against the monument pounced on the new fund, denouncing it as further proof that the Bears Ears campaign was the product of environmentalists and their liberal West Coast allies, not American Indian communities.
The other groups behind the new fund are Wyss Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Wilburforce Foundation and the Grand Canyon Trust.
"These outside groups have been engaged prior to this designation. We have been antagonistic to them because they have dumped millions into the campaign for the monument," said Janet Wilcox, a Blanding resident active with the anti-monument group Stewards of San Juan. "They have used their money to manipulate this designation."
"We are more concerned about real jobs and loss of grazing rights," Wilcox said. "We have lots of things to work out with BLM and Forest Service."
Utah leaders say Obama "abused" his executive powers in designating Bears Ears against the wishes of San Juan County leaders, who contend the monument will strangle economic development and snuff out a way of life dependent on grazing and resource extraction.
But another San Juan local who describes himself as a "steward," Josh Ewing, has a different perspective.
"This funding is critical to the protection of the archaeology and employing local people to take stewardship'" Ewing said.
"Given the political situation, it is critical for private people to fill in where government will fall short," said Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa. "A lot will go to basic things like informing visitors how to visit respectfully. You need tools to do that. You need brochures and signage, things that cost money. I don't see this funding as a partisan issue. It is about protecting this place and engaging people to help with that."
Scott, with the Hewlett Foundation, denied the claim that it tries to impose its will on communities, saying instead that it responds to locals wishes.
"For 50 years the foundation has supported groups and communities in western North America to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish," Scott said. "Far from being shadowy, you can see who we give money to. We are open and transparent."
Scott noted that Congress has eroded funding for land management over the past 15 years.
"It is not surprising people say they aren't meeting the needs," he said. "One way to fill that gap is private funding."
Grand Canyon Trust contributed to the Bears Ears fund to support tribal participation in managing the monument, according to its executive director, Bill Hedden of Castle Valley.
Obama's Bears Ears proclamation establishes a Bears Ears Commission, whose members will include a representation from the five tribes that proposed the monument Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi and Zuni. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service must either adopt the commission's recommendations or explain in writing why they can't.
"The big exciting thing is the tribes will have a prominent advisory role in management, so we get recognition of their ancient ties to this place and the benefits of their ancient knowledge," Hedden said.
In a related philanthropic gesture involving Bears Ears, ArtPlace America's National Creative Placemaking Fund has given Utah Dine Bikeyah, a grassroots pro-monument group, a grant to highlight traditional arts and their ties to the landscape.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.