BLANDING, Utah — Long after the Black Hawk helicopter carrying Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew off into the bright Utah sky, James Adakai stood in the airport parking lot with an angry frown frozen on his face.
As chairman of a tribal commission established to oversee the Bears Ears National Monument, Adakai, who is Navajo, felt he deserved a place in a meeting Zinke arranged at the airport to discuss the monument’s fate. Instead, Zinke met and toured the site in helicopters with Utah government officials and others who adamantly oppose the first U.S. monument designated at the request of Native American tribes to preserve artifacts and sacred lands.
“You see how they do us?” Adakai said.
Zinke was on his first trip to southern Utah since President Trump signed an executive order to review Bears Ears and 26 other monuments. Zinke stepped into the center of a land dispute that is as old as the Indian Wars.
The fight over Bears Ears is not the usual row between politicians who want to mine and drill the land and conservationists who want to preserve and ogle its natural splendor.
It also pits natives who reside on reservations across three states against many Anglos — as some Navajo and Hopi people call white residents — who live in San Juan County. In its largest city, Blanding, banners streaming “#RescindBearsEars” and homemade signs attached to fences that said “No Monument” told Zinke where folks stood.
Supporters such as the Utah Dine Bikeyah shouted their counterpoint — “Protect Bears Ears!” — everywhere Zinke appeared in public, as he tried to keep a poker face. “I’m in listening mode,” he said, trying to hear every side.
Zinke is expected to submit a recommendation to Trump in early June, following a public comment period that started Friday. But conservationists wondered whether the Trump administration had already betrayed its intent.
As he signed his executive order two weeks ago in Zinke’s office at Interior, Trump criticized former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the Democrats who, respectively, created Bears Ears and another Utah monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante.
“It’s time to end these abuses and return the control of the land to the people, the people of Utah,” Trump said. The president turned to praise Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a staunch opponent of the monuments, who stood at his side.
Hatch was an early Trump supporter who helped him carry Utah in the presidential election when his victory there was in doubt. He is also chairman of the Finance Committee, which will debate the tax overhaul and health-care bills the president desperately wants to pass.
When he was done signing the order, Trump handed the pen to Hatch, who said he would cherish it.
Zinke and Hatch were back together at a meeting in Salt Lake City that kicked off the secretary’s Utah trip. In remarks afterward, Zinke kept to his balanced public tone.
“I think they are smart, capable, passionate, and have a deep sense of tie to their culture and want to preserve it,” he said of the monument advocates.
Hatch wasn’t as polite, describing the Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Zuni tribal leaders who spearheaded the push for the designation as clueless.
“The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness,” the Salt Lake City Tribune quoted Hatch as saying.
The senator was asked to name something tribe members do now that a monument would disallow.
“That’d take too much time,” Hatch replied. “Just take my word for it.”
At the Blanding airport 300 miles south of Salt Lake the following day, Leonard Lee, a Navajo activist who stood near Adakai, spat on the ground before sharing his thoughts about Hatch’s comment. “It was an insult,” he said.
San Juan County, among the poorest in Utah, isn’t divided just by the issue of Bears Ears. Its population is almost equally split between white residents, at 49 percent, and American Indian and Alaska Natives, at 47 percent, according to 2015 Census Bureau estimates. Together, African Americans and Asian Americans barely make up a single percentage point.
A visitor center, bank and hardware store are among the few modern-looking buildings on a Main Street lined with aging hotels and a dollar store. The city has one traffic signal, a four-way flashing red light managing the intersection of Main and Center streets.
The county recently got a welcome shot of good news that distracted it from the battle over Bears Ears. Its population increased by 1,000 from 2015 to last year, making it one of the proportionally fastest-growing counties in the nation, with some newcomers lured by its gorgeous canyon country.
Bears Ears was projected by the Obama administration to be a tourism draw that could spark the economy and provide more jobs to an area where 30 percent of residents live in poverty, dragging down the median household income to about $41,000.
So why do so many oppose the monument?
“We didn’t feel like the previous administration gave us much of a chance to let them know what we thought needed to be done,” said Bruce Adams, a member of the San Juan County Commission who is a rancher in Monticello.
Adams spoke on a cellphone while on horseback herding cattle, the wind distorting the reception to break up his voice, which undulated as he moved side to side in the saddle.
Echoing Trump, whom he supported, as did a majority of voters in the county, Adams said the designation was an abuse of the Antiquities Act.
“The act says artifacts of historic and scientific significance should be protected, using the smallest amount of land to protect them. If you read the designation, they’re trying to protect cedar trees and small animals. They don’t need protection,” he said. “If you want to protect an Indian ruin, that’s a different story.”
Adams suggested, tongue in cheek, that 160 acres could protect the sacred artifacts in Bears Ears.
“They’re not just anti-monument, they’re prejudiced,” Davis Filfred, a representative of the Navajo nation, said. “San Juan County has mistreated our people, mismanaged our funds. I wouldn’t side with them any day.”
Filfred acknowledged that Zinke took time Sunday to meet for an hour with a contingent representing the tribes. But that short meeting followed months of requests that were not answered, he said.
The meeting was tense because the secretary didn’t appear to adequately honor a prayer ceremony, and the delegates read ill will in his body language. Filfred said Zinke leaned back “against a wall as if he’s already decided to rescind or amend the monument.”
A clear majority of the Navajo, not to mention other tribes, agree that Bears Ears deserves protection. But a few oppose it.
Rebecca Benally, a San Juan County commissioner, and Susie Johnson-Philemon, who wrote a resolution against the designation, are members of the Aneth chapter of the Navajo nation.
“The Aneth chapter is the only chapter that’s 100 percent in San Juan County,” she said. “Others are in Arizona and New Mexico voting on a Utah issue. It’s really sad that they never came to hear us out. The only people that stood with us is the San Juan government and the Utah legislature.”
After the Black Hawk touched back down, Zinke offered a bird’s-eye assessment of Bears Ears, calling it “drop-dead gorgeous.”
It’s just as hypnotizing from the ground. Bears Ears’ buttes tower skyward in mountains of red rock near dazzling canyons
It looks like a miniature of another American beauty, Grand Canyon National Park, but unlike that wonder, Bears Ears is easily accessible by ribbons of two-lane highways that cut through rock and branch off onto dirt roads.
That access is part of the new monument’s problems.
A highway in Monticello, the seat of San Juan County, runs past ancient areas such as Newspaper Rock, where native etchings of animals and pottery in sandstone record 2,000 years of human activity.
Viewers can reach across a thin rail and nearly touch it.
The thought of that ever happening makes Heidi Redd’s skin crawl. Redd, the former owner of Indian Creek Cattle Country Dugout Ranch, which is completely within the monument’s boundaries, has lived there in tranquility for 50 years.
Outdoor enthusiasts had started to visit more in the past few years, but now that Bears Ears is a monument, its secret is out, and she believes thousands will come to gawk. She and other supporters say funding should be released to hire staff and protect the monument.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed now,” Redd said. “This will be unintentional vandalism. People don’t know they shouldn’t lean on a wall. It’s funding we need to protect the things that need protection.”
Redd is a strong supporter of the Bears Ears monument designation who speaks of the place with a religious reverence.
“This is a spiritual place,” she said, with spirits in the crevices of stone that speak.
Zinke traveled to Redd’s remote ranch to hear her point of view in a private meeting the day after his air tour. Using flat mountains with steep cliffs as the backdrop of a speech following the meeting, Zinke promised to respect all sides in the debate.
Departing from other monument supporters who met him, Redd said: “I’m impressed with Zinke. He respects the beauty of this place.”
Bears Ears’ beauty has a Hope Diamond quality that is hurting the people who love and seek to possess it, causing what Redd called “friction between neighbors.”
“The respect for one another has been greatly trampled, unfortunately,” she said.
One concern for the land is cattle stepping on ruins, said Josh Ewing, a member of Friends of Cedar Mesa who lives in the county’s southernmost city of Bluff. When he met Zinke, he handed the secretary a list of 300 native antiquities sites dispersed through Bears Ears.
“We conservatively estimate that there are 100,000 sites,” he said.
“There will absolutely be strong legal challenges to any effort to shrink or minimize this monument,” Ewing said. “I anticipate that the tribes will quickly respond, and Friends of Cedar Mesa will take legal action if necessary.”
But Zinke and Trump appear to be setting themselves up to be the first interior secretary and president to possibly undo or dramatically scale back a monument designated by their predecessors.
Before leaving the airport, frowning with anger, Adakai said natives should manage the land that once belonged to their ancestors.
“We do not want drilling and strip mining the lands,” he said. “We want to preserve it for future generations.”