My view: Adding national monument status to Bears Ears would likely restrict access

By Randy T. Simmons and Barrett Anderson, September 16, 2016

Deseret News

This spring, officials representing the Navajo Nation sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for the designation of the Bears Ears Buttes as a national monument, sparking a debate that has reached a national level during the past few months, with no signs of letting up.

The proposed Bears Ears National Monument would encompass 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah, large parts of which are in San Juan County. Over 60 percent of San Juan County land is already owned and managed by the federal government and the county is currently facing unemployment rates double Utah’s statewide average. Sixty-four percent ofUtah lands are owned by the federal government — the second-most of any state — and the state already has the largest national monument in the continental U.S. with the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.

Earlier this summer, two polls were released that showed stark differences in what Utahns actually think about a monument designation. Creation Justice Ministries, a Washington-based group, conducted a poll showing that 71 percent of Utahns support the designation of a national monument. Dan Jones & Associates, a Utah-based polling firm, reported only 17 percent support for the designation.

In the Navajo Nation, there are strong disagreements over how to best preserve the area. The multistate Inter-Tribal Coalition wants Obama to designate the area as a national monument under the Antiquities Act. The Aneth Navajo Chapter, which is local to the Bears Ears area, opposes a national monument because they believe a designation would restrict their access to the land.

Conferring national monument status would likely restrict access to the majority of land and development for both Utahns and native Navajos. Although proponents for the monument argue that a designation would not restrict access, history shows otherwise. In the neighboring Garfield County, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation has resulted in increasingly restrictive policies for grazing, agriculture and energy exploration. The economy in southeastern Utah has historically relied on a combination of agriculture, energy development and tourism. With such a large national monument designation, the economy will be forced to rely heavily on tourism as increased land protection will likely restrict agricultural or energy uses, thus reducing the diversity of the economy.

For local Navajos, access to these lands for wood, herb gathering, hunting and religious ceremonies is vital. The monument proposal from the Inter-Tribal Coalition includes requests that these activities be allowed, but there is no guarantee that they will be honored in the actual designation. Furthermore, national monument designations are recognized as stepping stones to becoming national parks, which would severely restrict access to the lands. Four of Utah’s five national parks were first designated as national monuments and later redesignated.

A national monument designation will likely increase restrictions and decrease flexible management of the Bears Ears area, placing use of these lands one step further from the local people. A national monument is not the only way that Bears Ears can be preserved. Local solutions that seriously consider San Juan County’s economic development and the desire of the local Aneth Navajo chapter are necessary because these two groups are affected the most. Although outside groups may visit the area on occasion, this decision impacts the daily lives and well-being of San Juan County residents and Aneth Navajos. Outside groups might have a very different outlook and different opinions if the monument designation were happening in their own counties.

Barrett Anderson is a student research associate at Strata, a policy research center in Logan. Randy T. Simmons, Ph.D., is professor of political economy and director of the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University. Simmons is also the president of Strata.

At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.