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'I’m here to listen, I'm here to learn,' Interior Secretary says as she visits Bears Ears

Posted at 5:21 PM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-09 16:17:28-04

BLANDING, Utah — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland hiked through portions of Bears Ears National Monument, visiting with Governor Spencer Cox, Senator Mitt Romney and others.

Throughout her trip to the monument and its surrounding areas, she has taken meetings with tribal and environmental groups and local officials.

"My message is really simple: I’m here to listen, I’m here to learn," she told reporters at a news conference on Thursday here in Blanding.

Secretary Haaland will make a recommendation to President Biden about whether or not to change the boundaries of the monument again, undoing what President Trump did in 2017 when he dramatically shrunk Bears Ears. The monument was originally created by President Obama in 2016.

This time, however, Utah's political leaders are hoping to find some compromise.

"I think this is an opportunity for finding common ground," said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who urged President Biden to avoid the back-and-forth of monument designations.

Governor Spencer Cox said he believed there could be some agreement made. In an interview with FOX 13, he said no decision has been made about a new size of the Bears Ears National Monument, but he expected it would expand again. The governor also said it was his hope that any future legislation on monument designations includes tribal input.

"I really believe there is the potential for a solution out there," he said.

But what that compromise looks like, remains to be seen.

"We all want pretty much the same thing, right? We want to protect land," said Secretary Haaland. "We want to make sure it’s there for generations to come."

Native American tribes and groups allied with them have pressed for a full restoration of Bears Ears National Monument. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Clark Tenakhongva, the vice-chair of the Hopi Tribe, suggested native people have been pushed aside too long. He said the first to listen to them was the Obama administration, and they were left disappointed by President Trump.

"It's always us Native Americans at the end of the bus, having to declare our rights when we were the first inhabitants," Tenakhongva said.

Outside the Interior Secretary's meetings with local elected officials, small groups of monument opponents and supporters argued with each other. Angelo Baca with the group Utah Diné Bikéyah said what is happening in San Juan County is a microcosm of the rest of the country.

"We like to say Bears Ears is not a controversy. There’s nothing controversial about it. What it did, it’s put a spotlight, it’s showing of what’s happening here in this country," he said.

Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman said people in his community don't oppose monuments, but they certainly disagree with the size of Bears Ears. It was originally at 1.35 million acres, before being shrunk by about 85% by President Trump.

After meeting with Secretary Haaland, Mayor Lyman said he hoped the divisiveness would end.

"My hope is that the Secretary can find a way to have people rise above the political gamesmanship, the power, the politics, the control," he said.

But in Utah's Four Corners area, people are coming to acknowledge Bears Ears National Monument is here to stay — in some form. The Utah State Legislature recently passed a bipartisan bill to fund a visitors center with all tribes giving input in its creation.

Josh Ewing with the conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa said the area needs resources to deal with a huge influx of people coming in since it was created.

"There’s still not a sign that tells you’ve entered Bears Ears National Monument," he said. "Let alone the bathrooms for human waste, let alone trailhead signage to educate visitors."

On Friday, the Interior Secretary will visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson. That monument was also shrunk by President Trump in 2017. She will then return to Washington D.C. and present her recommendations and report to President Biden.