Utah Republican lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would protect 1.4 million acres of a sacred Native American site in the state’s southeast, as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the area to solicit ideas on how to address the threats it faces.
Bears Ears — an expanse of land in San Juan County that boasts both archeological treasures and critical environmental habitats — has come under pressure from looters and vandalism over the years. Utah’s congressional delegation has spent three years working to craft a compromise bill that would encompass not only that area but six other counties, providing opportunities for energy development, grazing and motorized recreation while designating some parts for conservation.
The new flurry of activity, including the bill introduction and Jewell’s four-day visit to meet with tribal leaders, local officials and environmentalists, underscores that time is running out to forge a legislative deal.
President Obama is weighing whether to designate Bears Ears as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act at the request of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni, who argue that state lawmakers have not given them sufficient input into their lands plan. While many of these nations no longer live in Utah, they date their connections to the land back more than 3,000 years, when ancestral Pueblo communities lived there.
Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, both Utah Republicans, said they needed to weigh the demands of this group against local residents’ desire to have greater say over land in the state, 65 percent of which is owned by the federal government.
The bill would consolidate 311,000 acres of state land into more compact areas, for example, making it easier to allow energy development that could generate revenue for education. It also would give the state permitting authority over energy development on federal land in four counties.
The measure makes some concessions to environmental groups by expanding the Bears Ears conservation area from 1.1 million acres to 1.4 million acres and by jettisoning controversial provisions that would have changed the definition of wilderness and blocked any future use of the Antiquities Act in the counties affected by the legislation.
“I think we’ve demonstrated we can bring along the environmental community, as well as energy developers, outdoors recreationalists and elected leaders,” Chaffetz said Thursday, adding: “The administration is fully engaged with us at this point. That’s a sea change from where we were a few months ago.”
Interior officials said they were reviewing the bill’s provisions.
Three environmental groups — the Pew Charitable Trusts, Nature Conservancy and Friends of Cedar Mesa — offered qualified support, saying that while they still had concerns, the bill could be the basis for further negotiations between Congress and the Obama administration.
“There’s recognition by the Utah delegation that places like Bears Ears deserve protection,” said Mike Matz, Pew’s director of U.S. public lands. “They’re going to have to make some improvements to get this through the Senate, let alone get it to the president’s desk in a shape where he can sign it.”
Several other organizations, including the Wilderness Society, said the legislation still falls short. Paul Spitler, the group’s wilderness policy director, noted that the measure does not encompass the full 1.9 million acres outlined in the tribal proposal. It would require that grazing and motorized-vehicle use be permitted even in national conservation areas.
“The management language completely undermines the conservation purposes of the protected areas,” Spitler said.