Interior Secretary Deb Haaland met with tribal leaders as well as Utah state leaders Wednesday in San Juan County to talk about Bears Ears National Monument. They toured the monument together Thursday morning.
Haaland is visiting southern Utah this week as part of an Interior Department review of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Former-president Donald Trump shrunk both monuments in 2017 at the behest of Utah politicians.
Haaland is under pressure to enlarge Bears Ears from Native American tribes as well as environmental groups. President Joe Biden even promised to restore the monuments during his presidential campaign. But she’s facing opposition from Utah’s state leaders and congressional delegation, who have historically opposed the monument.
Both groups have cheered her visit as a step in the right direction.
Patrick Gonzales-Rogers is the executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which represents five tribes with connections to the monument. It includes leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni.
“We’re just happy we have someone who is so engaged and who is getting so informed,” he said. “She’s done more in the last 30 days than what’s occurred in the last 1,300 days [under former-president Donald Trump].”
Gonzales said neither Ryan Zinke nor David Bernhardt, who both served as Interior Secretary under the Trump Administration, met with the Inter-Tribal Coalition during their visits to Utah regarding the monuments.
The Inter-Tribal Coalition wants a 1.9 million acre monument. That’s about half a million acres larger than the monument’s original size, as established by former-president Barack Obama in 2016. The Coalition is part of an ongoing lawsuit opposing Trump’s shrinking of the national monuments that could decide whether or not a president can alter another president’s monument designations.
Meanwhile, Utah’s governor and congressional delegation have asked President Joe Biden not to enlarge the monuments by executive order. They are asking the president to pursue a congressional solution involving compromise.
“Can we give on some issues? Can they give on some issues? Can we come to a peaceful resolution of this? So we're not fighting this battle every year for 20 years, 25 years?” Gov. Spencer Cox said during a press conference on PBS Utah in January. He also said he welcomed tribal participation in any negotiations between Utah and the Biden administration.
Gonzales-Rogers said the tribes are interested in working with Utah to reach some sort of compromise, but that Cox and the Utah delegation have refused to give the Coalition an answer on their preferred size for the monument.
“I love that they want to speak about this,” he said. “But without details, no one in their right mind would go forward.”
Gonzales-Rogers also raised concerns about the conspicuous absence of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in San Juan County this week.
Haaland promised to visit Utah before the Biden administration makes any changes to the size of the monuments in response to a question from Lee during her confirmation hearing.
Lee was not present when Haaland met with Cox, Utah Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore, and Sen. Mitt Romney, on Wednesday.
“To me it creates an asterisk,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “Because this might be a built in excuse [if Haaland negotiates an agreement with Utah’s delegation] that Sen. Lee never supported this, which then begs the question: Why did we engage in this conversation if [Utah’s] senior senator was not on board?”
Haaland took a tour of Bears Ears with Utah politicians and tribal leaders on Thursday morning, then held a press conference that afternoon in Blanding. Tribal representatives from the Coalition, as well as Cox, Romney and Moore also spoke.
Haaland said the main goal of her trip was to “listen and learn” from stakeholders, including local officials, tribal leaders, scientists and conservation groups. But she said the meetings have not yet resulted in a compromise between Utah state leaders and tribal representatives.
“Congressman Curtis has talked about legislation. I don’t know exactly what that looks like,” she said. “But look, legislation can always move forward, right?”
She added that she will report back to Biden, who will make the ultimate decision about what to do with the monuments.
Cox struck a conciliatory tone at the conference, saying he wants to work with tribal leaders on a compromise. That message was echoed by Romney. He said he and his colleagues are hoping to work with tribal leaders to better understand what they want to get out of the monument before making a decision about its size.
“As opposed to us coming to them and saying, this is how many acres we want, we’d rather say let’s work together and do the hard work to see if we can’t find some common ground, if you will, some understanding of what can be done where. And then what the designation is would follow.”
Despite the talk of compromise, some people are still deeply opposed to the monument. During the press conference, a small group of protesters gathered nearby, holding signs that read “No Monument.” Blanding resident Nicole Perkins was among them. She expressed frustration at Cox and Romney’s message.
“It’s just handing [the federal government] more control,” she said. “Why are we trusting them to have this conversation?”
Perkins added she’s nervous Utah’s delegation could strike a compromise that hurts local residents, including Native Americans, by restricting access to wood gathering and other activities like grazing.
Haaland said she will meet with Lee, as well as Utah Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart in Kane County. She’s headed there on Friday to meet with stakeholders regarding Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Kane County commissioner Leland Pollock opposes an increase in the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante. He said that the current monument, which was shrunk by Trump, is working well for the county.
“Everyone thinks it’s much much better, except for special interest groups like The Wilderness Society and [The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] — all those groups that are hellbent on one use of public lands,” he said.
Meanwhile, the majority of local officials in San Juan County and Grand County support the enlargement of Bears Ears. Both county commissions as well as the Town of Bluff and the City of Moab have passed resolutions in recent months asking Biden to enlarge the monument, but the cities of Blanding and Monticello oppose an increase.
The Interior Department said in March that it will release a decision regarding the monuments after Haaland’s trip.