Prehistoric Granary overlooks Cedar Mesa in San Juan County. Utah's congressional delegation is urging President Barack Obama not to designate a new national monument that would protect existing federal lands in the surrounding area. [Photo by Josh Ewing / Courtesy of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition]

Utah’s congressional delegation is urging President Barack Obama not to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument on federal lands in San Juan County.

The calls from the state’s four Republican congressmen and two U.S. senators come on the heels of the president’s designation last week of three new national monuments in southern California’s Mojave Desert. The move amplified the Utah delegation’s fears that a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument may be next on the president’s agenda.

“Use of the Antiquities Act … will be met with fierce local opposition and will further polarize federal land-use discussions for years, if not decades,” the delegation says in a letter to Obama.

The representatives are urging the president to let legislative action determine the fate of public lands in this hotly contested corner of Utah known for its wild and scenic landscapes, cultural and archaeological resources, and deposits of oil, gas and minerals.

“The most effective land management policy is inclusive and engaging, not veiled and unilateral,” the letter says. “Knowing this, we have collaboratively developed a proposal that would conserve more than 1.2 million acres of federal land in San Juan County—including iconic locations such as Cedar Mesa, Indian Creek, and the Bears Ears Buttes. We are prepared to work with the Administration to get this proposal signed into law.”

The Bears Ears region contains many diverse ecosystems and thousands of Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites. It is also home to modern traditional land uses such as grazing, uranium mining and wood harvesting, and is popular among off-road vehicle riders.

A poll conducted by Colorado College claims that 66 percent of Utahns support the designation. But the Bears Ears proposal is opposed by the Utah delegation, as well as oil, gas and mineral developers, and some rural residents who live in the affected area.

The designation of a Bears Ears National Monument is supported by multiple conservation groups and a coalition of Native American tribes that includes the Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Zuni.

Eric Descheenie, a senior adviser to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, said that sending the letter shows a lack of commitment toward the protection of indigenous cultural resources. The protections that the delegation are offering for the Bears Ears region fall short, he said.

“Never once did they ask why these lands are so important to us,” Descheenie said. “Since 2010, our grassroots leadership and traditional practitioners have cataloged in great detail where and why these lands are so special.”

Descheenie also said that the delegation’s proposal doesn’t give adequate representation to regional tribes.

“Creating only two seats for tribal representation and overlooking one of two local tribes is simply unacceptable,” he said.

In order to avert the designation, Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz have been drafting the eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI), which they hope will settle federal public land-use issues once and for all in the region.

Dubbed the “Grand Bargain” by Bishop, the PLI has been touted as a bottom-up process. The delegation says that stakeholders representing diverse interests have voiced their opinions to their respective elected leaders, who have then forwarded their recommendations on to Congress.

The recommendations are meant to represent a compromise vision for land use on federal public lands that sets some areas aside for conservation, while designating others for energy development.

The congressmen released a draft of the bill on Jan. 20, and it came under swift condemnation from conservation groups.

“The draft PLI is far from a compromise between land protection and development,” Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) staff attorney Neal Clark of Moab said. “Rep. Bishop has drafted a fossil fuels development bill that gives away our shared public resources.”

Clark said that the draft PLI rolls back existing protections for wilderness-quality lands, and that it includes loopholes and exceptions for development on lands it proposes for conservation.

Also at issue for SUWA and other conservation organizations is a provision that gives the state ownership of all contested road rights-of-way under the RS 2477 statute.

“We know what compromise looks like, as we had reached it in both Daggett and Summit counties,” Clark said. “Much to our dismay, the delegation completely failed to honor those compromises by excluding nearly every aspect of the Daggett County agreement and grossly distorting the Summit County agreement.”

But Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said the draft PLI is a reasonable first step toward compromise.

“Although I support parts of the draft PLI and not others, I absolutely support this process for making such significant long-term decisions for public lands in our region,” Jackson said. “Some groups, unfortunately, don’t seem to fully grasp or accept the concept of compromise in which not everyone gets what they want.”

Jackson said that he believes the delegation’s letter is meant to counter the demands of environmental organizations, but that if the PLI fails, there will be a strong possibility for the creation of a national monument in Utah.

“President Obama seems to be on a monument-creating roll during his last year in office after his actions in California last week,” he said. “Those actions send a pretty strong message.”

The Grand County Council is currently preparing a response to the draft initiative, which includes significant changes to its recommendations, including its opposition to the so-called Book Cliffs Highway. Boosters of that proposal are touting it as a way to connect oil-rich Uintah County with Grand County, while promoting it as a transportation corridor that would connect national parks in Utah and Wyoming.

Western Energy Alliance Vice President for Government and Public Affairs Kathleen Sgamma said she thinks the draft PLI is a good first step. One addition that she’d like to see is a provision that would reduce what she calls “red tape” from the federal government in Indian Country.

Sgamma said that the Ute Tribe is just as interested in responsible development of oil on tribal lands as industry is.

“That would be one way to get the tribe on board,” she said.

In the end, however, Sgamma expressed little confidence that the PLI will sway Obama from designating a national monument.

“As a president beholden to the environmental lobby, and with a disregard for hardworking Americans whose livelihoods depend on responsible economic activity on public lands, he sees no political downside to a large monument designation in Utah,” she said.

Congress passed the Antiquities Act, and former President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law, in June 1906. The law gives the president the authority to create national monuments on federal public lands to protect areas of significant natural, cultural or scientific resources.

Presidents from both sides of the political spectrum have since used the act more than 100 times, resulting in the creation of many of the nation’s most beloved national parks, including Arches, Grand Canyon and Grand Teton – all of which were first designated as national monuments.

But use of the unilateral, presidential proclamation has often been criticized, particularly by Western representatives and some rural residents who resent the intrusion of the federal government. Critics fear it restricts access to public lands, and prohibits resource development.

“Federal land-use policy has a major impact on the lives of those within and near federal lands,” the delegation’s letter says. “We believe the wisest land-use decisions are made with community involvement and support.”

Tribal coalition counters that president must protect Bears Ears

Use of the Antiquities Act within will be met with fierce local opposition and will further polarize federal land-use discussions for years, if not decades.