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Utah Divided Over Obama's 11th-Hour Monument Designation

Local residents protest the new Bears Ears National Monument in Monticello, Utah, on Dec. 29, 2016. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Waving signs that read “#Trump This Monument,” “Rural Lives Should Matter” and “Obama Sucks,” a couple hundred people gathered in Monticello, Utah, to protest President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears buttes as a national monument in late December.

The Bears Ears are a pair of buttes that reach 8,700 feet in elevation and are named for their resemblance to the ears of a bear emerging from the horizon. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, among other groups, had spent years pushing for the federal protection granted by Obama in December.

The tribes in the coalition consider the land to be sacred. It includes more than 10,000 cultural relics.

However, not every Native American in Utah supported national monument status for the Bears Ears.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported Betty Jones, an 87-year-old member of the Navajo tribe, told the Monticello protest crowd she thought Barack Obama might not even be human. Others in the crowd said President-elect Trump should add the Bears Ears Monument designation to the list of Obama executive orders he has promised to overturn.

All three San Juan County, Utah, commissioners said the entire county, in which Bears Ears is located, was in mourning because of Obama’s decision.

“The push for a monument did not originate from those most impacted by this decision. Instead, it came from outside special interest groups who used deception and collusion to drown out local voices,” a statement from the commission said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes “condemned” Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Reyes said while the “sacred tribal areas in and around Bears Ears” should be protected, a national monument “divests it from the very people for whom it is sacred.”

Gov. Gary Herbert said he was “deeply disturbed” and “more than disappointed” by Obama’s move.

In addition to the Native American artifacts, Bears Ears is also home to potash deposits, uranium and potential gas and oil development. But mining and drilling are now forbidden thanks to the national monument designation.

Herbert said Obama had no business “unilaterally locking up 1.35 million acres — an area roughly the size of the entire State of Delaware.”

“The president has misused his authority under the Antiquities Act and violated assurances made by his Interior Secretary to take into account local concerns before making a monument designation,” Herbert said in a statement.

So Reyes is working with the governor’s office, federal and state legislators and officials of San Juan County now to file a lawsuit challenging what Reyes described as the “egregious overreach” of the Obama administration.

It isn’t just the people who live in Utah full-time who were angered by the Bears Ears National Monument Designation.

PJM reported in December that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument an “arrogant act by a lame-duck president.”

But the people of Utah are upset.

A UtahPolicy poll published in November showed 60 percent of the state’s residents opposed the idea of a national monument to protect the land.

But it is a partisan issue. The UtahPolicy survey also showed 81 percent of people who described themselves as Republicans hated the idea, while 81 percent of Democrats liked the idea.

So it’s no surprise that the Utah state Democratic Party issued a statement on its Facebook page applauding the president’s decision.

“We commend the president for this action to preserve this sacred and important land for generations to come,” the party’s statement read.

Adam Cramer, the executive director of the Outdoor Alliance, told Deseret News his group was “psyched that President Obama has chosen to provide permanent protection for one of the most incredible outdoor destinations in the country.”

Jennifer Rokala, the Center for Western Priorities executive director, said that the idea of a Bears Ears National Monument had been debated for 80 years and recently illegal activities like grazing and irrigation had caused major damage to the landscape, ancient petroglyphs, caves and archaeological sites on Gold Butte.

“By protecting Bears Ears and Gold Butte, President Obama has secured his legacy as one of America’s great conservation presidents,” Rokala said in a statement.

KSL reported Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, noted that the 1.35 million protected acres comprise a smaller area than the 1.9 million the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition wanted. But Alfred Lomahquahu, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, said the coalition was satisfied.

“Our connection with this land is deeply tied to our identities, traditional knowledge, histories and cultures. We look forward to working with the current and future administrations to fully and properly administer these lands for all to enjoy,” he said.

But still most Utahans, at least according to the recent UtahPolicy survey, oppose the national monument designation, and a coalition of the state’s top lawmakers are ready to fight it in court.

Boyd Matheson, president of the Sutherland Institute and an opponent of the monument designation, told the Salt Lake Tribune Obama’s designation was another instance of people in Washington not understanding the needs of the people in the western United States.

He also said the president’s signature on the designation doesn’t mean this debate is over.

“It doesn’t have to be the end that the environmental groups and those who were for it can spike the ball,” Matheson said. “Nor does it have to be the end for those who were against it and want local control and feel like they’ve lost.”