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Bear Ears Is The New Focus For Conservation and Tribal Groups

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Utah representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz are unveiling their long-awaited Public Lands Initiative in Salt Lake City. But Utah’s Navajos and Utes, along with conservation groups, have joined to focus instead on persuading President Obama to create a Bears Ears national monument. 

In the center of the proposed almost two-million-acre monument are the actual “bears ears,” a prominent pair of buttes that are sacred to the Navajos. This mostly BLM land contains more than 100,000 cultural sites and includes place names familiar to most of Utah’s back country enthusiasts: Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, Indian Creek, Valley of the Gods, Dark Canyon and Grand Gulch. Leonard Lee, who lives in Aneth, says tribal members are concerned about continued looting of archeological sites.

“Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa is something that hasn’t been really taken care of, because of the BLM was saying that they’re limited to their law enforcement. And there was a lot of looting and desecration and grave robbery, and a lot of these sites were destroyed, damaged.”

The tribes also object to San Juan County’s designation of “energy corridors” to promote uranium mining and oil and gas. Lee says the conservation ethic runs deep among Navajos and Utes.

“And a lot of stories about the Bears Ears by the elders, where there’s sacred places where the holy springs are. The wind has a home in those caves and those canyonlands, and the talking rocks into those cliffs. And our belief as a tradition, we respect anything with the mother nature and within the base of the mountain to the top of the mountain, and also the wildlife.”

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Bill Boyle, editor of the San Juan Record, supports the commissioners’ decision to stick with the Bishop/Public Lands initiative.

“The Bears Ears, I don’t know who dreamed it up, but it wasn’t anyone local, a group of people who’d never been here before primarily, comes rolling in in July, and announces that they’ve decided what’s going to happen.”

Commissioner Phil Lyman, defends the county’s decisions.

“You can look at the proposals that were put out by all the different entities, and you’ll see that they’re not that different. For me an overriding element of all the planning was that we agree on so much. Some people have a different agenda and maybe they want to see some controversy that’s not really there. Again, you can look at the proposals and see that Bears Ears has not been excluded or neglected.”

Rebecca Benally, the only Navajo on the commission, has come to agree that Bears Ears is being proposed by outsiders.

“It’s not about being true Navajo, it’s about representation of the true Utah grass roots people that are Navajo, they are in this county, and they just felt that, whether it’s Dineh Bikeyah or the Bears Ears coalition wasn’t a true representation of the Utah grass roots Navajo people.”

Meanwhile Bears Ears has the support of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other green groups, and according to a new poll, two thirds of Utah residents. 

For more on this topic, click here.

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."