Dispute over 2 million acres in southern Utah could turn violent

As the 1.9 million acres of unprotected historical and culturally-rich canyon lands of the Cedar Mesa plateau in Utah continue to be pillaged for its valuable ancient artifacts which date back more than three millennia, President Obama is actively considering designation of the area as a national monument.

Like 65 percent of the state, the majority of southeastern Utah is owned by the federal government, but the area in question — famous for two buttes called Bears Ears in its geographic center — only sports two Bureau of Land Management Rangers to maintain the vast property.

Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president has authority to designate “objects of historic or scientific interest,” as a national monument to officially preserve land areas under federal law and ensure their protection with the management of such agencies as the National Park Service.

The proposal, however, initiated by the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015, has met local, state and federal resistance from Utah officials who argue not only that a complete Washington take-over of the land would hurt the local economy, but that it could trigger more militia violence as seen recently in Nevada and Oregon — and as Utah Senator Orrin Hatch told Interior Department Sec. Sally Jewel in March. 

While Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a state resolution in May declaring opposition to the national monument designation, the document also called for “protection and conservation of the Bears Ears area”, with “a constitutionally, locally driven legislative approach.”

Such an approach has been in the works for three years apparently, as Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, both Utah Republicans, have been in discussions with local advocacy groups of all stripes to come up with a plan that would designate parts of 18 million acres in eastern Utah both for commercial development and conservation.

Native American advocacy groups, local tribes and environmentalists have been critical of the soon-to-be proposed House legislation, and want more federal protections against land exploitation, like oil and gas drilling.

However, with the Native population of San Juan County, which encompasses Cedar Mesa, at close to 50 percent, the unemployment rate there stands at double the state average after local oil wells dried up more than two years ago.

Another factor at play may be Obama’s legacy, who U.S. presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says “keenly wants to do some things [recognizing] Native American culture.”

In November 2015 at the Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., the president promised to “review tribal proposals to permanently protect sacred lands for future generations.”

The local politics of Cedar Mesa’s proposed national monument designation is also starting to become contentious.  The Guardian reported on Sunday that fake documents are being circulated in San Juan County post offices and gas stations.

Two forged letters from Sec. Jewell and the Interior Dept. claim the Navajo reservation land to the south of the plateau will “revert” back to the federal government and that “no Utah Navajos are invited” to the announcement ceremony featuring President Obama in July.

In response to the entire Bears Ears land initiative, a Interior Dept. spokesperson only said that, “(Jewell) is still committed to placing 500,000 acres of land into trust nationwide by the end of President Obama’s term.”


See more photographs of scenic Cedar Mesa here: http://thefurtrapper.com/home-page/cedar-mesa/


[Washington Post] [The Guardian]