SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah – Should the Bears Ears area in Utah become a national monument?
That was the discussion taking place in southeastern Utah Saturday afternoon as Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, was visiting the Beehive State.
According to a press release from Utah Dine Bikeyah, more than 1,500 people attended the public meeting. The discussion was heated, and so was the temperature as the building lacks air conditioning.
“We speak for our people, nobody else,” one member of the Navajo Nation said. "I'm offended when people say, 'I talked to [the Navajo]', and they haven't."
Jewell and other public leaders listened as members of the crowd spoke their minds. With so many in attendance, a lottery system was used to determine who would be given time to speak.
“I support the Public Lands Initiative and a national conservation area,” one attendee said.
Jewell heard proposals on whether or not to make Bears Ears and 1.9 million acres of land a national monument. An alternative proposal put forward by Utah lawmakers is called the Public Lands Initiative.
“I assume that it should be grassroots up, not federal top down,” Rebecca Benally said.
Rebecca Benally is a San Juan County Commissioner. She represents part of the divided room opposed to the national monument. She said she sees issues with the destruction of Bears Ears lands already, and she thinks making it a national monument may draw more crowds and make the situation worse.
She said her experience leads her to question the wisdom of trusting the federal government for help.
“Nothing but broken promise, so I have no confidence that the national monument will be any different,” Benally said.
But other locals see it differently. Eric Descheeni, a member of the Navajo Nation, is for the monument. He said there's a lot of misinformation flying around, and he believes making Bears Ears a monument will be good for everyone in the long-term.
“I hope that when this is all said and done, we can look back in the rear-view mirror and be able say, well, we did it right, we did it civilly,” he said.
Jewell will return to Washington D.C. with the ideas and opinions presented Saturday.