FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Tribal leaders in the Southwest outlined a proposal Thursday to designate a section of southeastern Utah as a national monument, seeking to become partners with the federal government in managing their ancestral homeland.
The proposed Bears Ears National Monument is named for twin buttes that overlook Cedar Mesa. The 1.9 million-acre area would be bordered to the south by the Navajo Nation and to the west by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. The Manti-La Sal National Forest would make up part of the eastern boundary.
American Indian and conservation groups say the area is under constant threat by looting of cultural objects, off-road vehicle use and destruction of gravesites — affronts to tribes' ancestors, they say, and impediments to communities' ability to heal. A handful of tribes submitted a proposal to President Barack Obama's administration asking that he use his power under the Antiquities Act to proclaim the area a national monument and honor the tribes' inherent connection with the land.
"It is not a matter of romanticism or political correctness," the proposal reads. "Native people always have, and we do now, conceive of and relate to the natural world in a different way than does the larger society."
Republicans in Utah's congressional delegation have opposed the use of the Antiquities Act, saying it would undermine a larger effort to resolve disputes over public lands in Utah. Eric Descheenie, co-chairman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said the tribes' views on the land being a source of healing have been overlooked in that discussion.
"This is very much about our ability to heal, our ability to negotiate with these beings who live at the Bears Ears," he said. "Those negotiations transpire in ceremonies and prayers that have been handed down from generation to generation verbatim, consistent with creation stories."
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz said the coalition is an important voice and they will consider the tribes' proposal and dozens of others in crafting a legislative package.
"While many Native Americans who live in Utah oppose the coalition's proposal, we welcome the input and recommendations nonetheless," they said.
The Department of the Interior said it commends the tribes' efforts to formalize its proposal and is hopeful that it factors into the congressional delegation's Public Lands Initiative. However, the agency said it doesn't want proposals to protect and preserve areas that Americans treasure to fall by the wayside in Congress.
"If Congress does not act, we will continue to work with communities and tribes to ensure that their most historic and cultural sites are protected for future generations," the agency said.
Under the tribes' proposal, the monument would be managed by an eight-member commission made up of representatives from the Ute, Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni tribes, and three federal agencies. Popular recreation activities like mountain biking, river running, climbing and responsible off-road vehicle use will continue but with better management that will protect the natural resources, the tribes said.
The proposal bans mining, and oil and gas, or energy developments that don't have valid, existing rights.
San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Rebecca Benally said she agrees that Cedar Mesa and the Bears Ears should be protected. But, she said, designating them part of a national monument "is too restrictive."