[Courtesy photo]

The contentious Bears Ears National Monument is headed in a new direction with the San Juan County Commission.

In 2019 two new San Juan County commissioners, Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, both Democrats and Navajos, were sworn in to the San Juan County Commission to join Republican commissioner Bruce Adams, who is serving his fifth term. This is the first time Native Americans have held a majority in that body, and the new commission is making waves.

The San Juan County Commission passed two resolutions on the Bears Ears National Monument at its Feb. 19 meeting.

One of the resolutions rescinds prior resolutions passed by the previous commissioners that opposed the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument, or called for its reduction. The new commission now disapproves of the monument’s reduction and calls for restoration to its previously established boundaries.

The other resolution directs the San Juan County Attorney to withdraw the county’s involvement in a lawsuit regarding Bears Ears. Several tribal and environmental groups in favor of the original monument have appealed to federal courts to undo President Donald J. Trump’s reduction of the monument. Under the previous San Juan County Commission members, San Juan County has entered this lawsuit on the side of President Trump, along with the State of Utah and the American and Utah Farm Bureau federations. In accordance with this resolution, that support will be withdrawn. Commissioner Adams opposed the resolutions.

At the meeting, one Monticello resident described the commission’s change in stance as “fickle.” Another San Juan County resident, who is Native American, said that “our way of life has been acknowledged for the first time. And I want that to continue.”

While these resolutions are being made, the Utah State Legislature is considering its own agendas.

House Bill 78, introduced by Rep. Carl Albrecht, is legislation that would restrict the ability of government subsidiaries to take a formal stance on federal land designations such as Bears Ears without a recommendation from the state.

House Bill 78 could negate The Government Speech Doctrine of the First Amendment, which says that “a government entity is entitled to say what it wishes.” The First Amendment doctrine further says that the “underlying rationale for the government speech doctrine is that the government could not function if the government could not favor or disfavor points of view in enforcing a program.” Government subsidiaries such as counties, cities and villages are entitled to “viewpoint discrimination.”

Bears Ears National Monument continues to garner differing viewpoints from San Juan County residents. Many citizens attended the February 5 San Juan County Commission meeting, at which the resolutions were introduced for public discussion, to express their views on the monument and the commission’s proposed actions.

Comments were made in English and in Navajo languages, and sometimes a mix. Some comments raised doubts that the resolutions reflected the wishes of a majority of San Juan County voters, and suggested that more public input be solicited before taking action.

Kim Henderson, who was born and raised in Monticello, addressed commissioners Grayeyes and Maryboy at the February 5 meeting. 

“Both of you gentlemen said that as commissioners it was one of your goals to help heal and unify San Juan County,” Henderson said. “But your proposed resolution to de-establish the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument is in no way a reflection of the majority of your constituents, both Anglo and Native, in San Juan County. And that has been made very clear over the last year and a half.”

Others feared they would lose access to natural areas they value, for recreation, spiritual needs or other uses.

“What access restrictions would a monument create for us?” asked Shannon Brooks, a resident of Monticello.

Anna Tom, a Navajo woman who lives at McCracken Mesa, attended the meeting with her mother, Betty Jones. Tom said she uses the monument area to collect wood and herbs for traditional practices, and she fears the establishment of the monument will restrict access to these resources.

“We have been through this before, what the BLM will do, what the federal government will do,” she said.

Another issue raised was the increasing influence of the federal government and outside entities in local affairs.

Jed Lyman, of Blanding, questioned the source of the resolutions.

“I would like to know who it is that’s writing policy for San Juan County,” he said at the meeting. “Is it someone inside the county? Or is it someone pulling strings for puppets that are here in San Juan County?”

Mary Shumway, a resident of Blanding, warned against dependence on the federal government for economic stability, in light of the national debt and the recent partial federal shut-down. She believes the county needs to establish economic independence to pay for its own services.

“I believe that we should do everything we can possible to take care of ourselves here in San Juan County,” she said. “If we lock up our land, that locks up our ability in the future to fund education. I believe there are a lot of outside sources who have their reasons why they want to lock up our land. But they’re not trying to educate our children, and they’re not concerned about local law enforcement, or the quality of our roads.”

Many Blanding citizens are feeling disenfranchised since the city was split between three separate commission voting districts by a court-ruled redistricting in 2017. There is some discussion of pulling away from San Juan County and creating a new, separate county. The last time a new county was created in Utah was 1917, when Daggett County split from Uintah County.

House Bill 93, a new law recently proposed in the state legislature, would make it easier for counties to separate by removing the requirement that residents of both the new and the existing county areas vote with a majority in favor of the split.

Other San Juan citizens spoke in favor of the resolutions and in favor of the larger boundaries for the national monument. Mary Benally serves on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), a nonprofit that supports the Bears Ears National Monument. Commissioner Grayeyes also served on the board of UDB before his election to the county commission.

Benally spoke about how difficult it has been for native tribes to be heard in discussions about land management, and also emphasized her own and other tribe members’ “strong ancestral ties to the land.” She hoped for open-minded discussions.

Monument Valley citizen Cynthia Wilson also spoke in favor of the larger monument designation. She said she represents a younger generation of indigenous locals.

“This Bears Ears National Monument is a model example of how we need to bring our voices together,” she said. “It’s already managed by BLM and U.S. Forest Service. By the federal land planners. But our voices as native people are missing, yet we know the land best. So right now as it sits, the land is just being planned and protected by Western thoughts, by Western thinking, but where’s the indigenous thought of land management planning? Our voices with this inter-tribal coalition is essential to this issue.”

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition includes people from the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Zuni Tribe, Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, all of which support the establishment of the monument with the larger boundaries. Though the group has members from each of these entities, not all Native Americans belonging to these tribes agree with the coalition’s mission.

Several citizens who had attended the Feb. 5 meeting also showed up at the Feb. 19 meeting to reiterate their opposition to the measures up for vote as well as new items for discussion.

New items raised for discussion included a resolution for San Juan County to formally support a proposed bill in Congress that will expand the monument to 1.9-million acres, even larger than the initial designation.

It appears that contentious discussion about the future of the Bears Ears will continue for the foreseeable future.

New commission reverses stance on national monument designation amid outspoken residents opposing the issue

“I would like for the citizens of this county just to sit down and talk, have some dialogues. Maybe we can understand each other better … you never know, we might come to a compromise.”