Debate over proposed Bears Ears National Monument heats up on Capitol Hill

Posted at 6:27 PM, Apr 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-21 10:59:38-04

SALT LAKE CITY – Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will visit Utah this summer, and the announcement has some wondering if it’s a signal President Obama will create a new national monument in the Beehive State.

That would be good news to a group that gathered at the state capitol Wednesday, but Republican lawmakers think it would poison the process of managing Utah’s lands.

It was a packed room at the state capitol at a meeting with the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands. Many people donned T-shirts and held signs showing their support for a new Bears Ears National Monument.

A coalition of tribal members want President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to preserve 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah. Supporters testified at Wednesday's hearing.

“We need to protect. We don't need to do it several years down the road,” said Regina Lopez White Skunk with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

“We do have a history of broken treaties, but this is our time to make a difference,” said Cynthia Wilson, a University of Utah graduate student.

While five tribes, including the Navajo Nation, support the designation, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally says many Navajo disagree with their tribe.

”What they want is continued access for spirituality, for healing,” Benally said.

Benally blasted what she calls, “special interest groups.”

“There's intimidation, harassment, bullying and the tactic of divide and conquer that is being used against my people, Navajo against Navajo, Native Americans against Native Americans," Benally said.

Senator Jim Dabakis said there’s growing support in San Juan County.

“The Native Americans who make up more than 50 percent of San Juan County have spoken loudly and clearly: They want it protected," he said.

Sparks flew when Senator Dabakis accused Republican lawmakers of shutting Democrats out of the process.

“We want this to be preserved and protected, and it's a non-partisan issue here Senator Dabakis, any kind of cheap shots, I'm offended by it,” Benally said.

Governor Herbert announced that he is calling a special session for May 18, in part to address the Bears Ears proposal. He’s urging lawmakers to join him in opposing it.