Bears Ears' Monumental Impact on Utah Stakeholders

Jun 11, 2021  | 6 min  | Ep4643

TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, pulled the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline after Canadian officials failed to persuade President Biden to reverse his cancellation of the permit.

The long-delayed project was to transport crude from the oil fields of Canada to Nebraska. Biden cited environmental concerns as a reason for stopping the project on his first day in office.

The last three presidents have been involved in Keystone along with another debate in almost the same region.

President Obama made the first move in a debate that has a generations-long cultural past in the West.

Josh Buettner reports in our Cover Story.

On his way out of office, President Barrack Obama proclaimed 1.35 million acres in southeastern Utah a national monument.  Bears Ears, named for distinctive twin buttes towering over San Juan County’s diverse high desert landscape, was the first monument created in collaboration with a coalition of various Native American governments.

Archaeologists and conservationists hailed the move for protecting the region’s myriad cultural and natural sites, but President Trump shrank Bears Ears by 85 percent one year later – splitting the monument into two non-contiguous sites.  Critics warned former protected lands could be opened up for fossil fuel and mineral development.

President Donald Trump: “…modifying the Bears Ears National Monument.”

Trump’s action drew the ire of local tribal constituents who consider the area sacred.  A handful of various stakeholder lawsuits, alleging presidential overreach, spun up and were consolidated into one case by a federal judge - but judicial backlog and coronavirus have kept the case in limbo.

President Joe Biden: “…so help me, God.”

Chief Justice John Roberts: “Congratulations, Mr. President.”

Upon taking office, President Biden promptly issued a review of Trump’s changes, and the district court granted a stay.  A recommendation from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Bears Ears’ boundaries is forthcoming, but the issue remains divisive in Utah.

Josh Ewing/Executive Director – Friends of Cedar Mesa: “This ping-pong back and forth between maybe a conservative president and a liberal president, and going back and forth…  That’s not good for the land.  You know, the land should not be political football.”

Josh Ewing is Executive Director of Friends of Cedar Mesa – a grassroots organization founded in 2010 to support regional public land use.  Based in Bluff, Utah, the group’s Bears Ears Education Center helps enlighten tourists drawn to a massive county larger than a handful of New England states combined.  Ewing also describes San Juan as the most archaeologically rich county in the U.S.

Josh Ewing/Executive Director – Friends of Cedar Mesa, Bluff, Utah: “People aren’t used to just walking up to a cliff dwelling, walking up to a 2,000 year old pictograph.  They need to know how to behave in those sensitive areas.  Archeological sites are easily damaged and once they’re damaged, they can’t be recreated.”

Tyler Ivins/Blanding Utah: “So this is the edge of our permit. We run all the way up this canyon.”

Shawn Ivins/Blanding Utah: “Everything inside of these rims is part of the monument.”

The vastness of San Juan County is one reason ranchers Tyler and Shawn Ivins breathed a sigh of relief upon Trump’s rollback.  The brothers run 300 head of cattle on mountain and desert allotments within Obama’s previous proclamation area.

Tyler Ivins/Blanding Utah: “So these are Anasazi ruins.  They’re all over San Juan County.  There are thousands of them.  To put it into perspective, one acre is 210 feet by 210 feet square, which would more than protect that area or that site. And if there were 100,000 of them, that would be 100,000 acres.  And they wanted to take 13 times that, which is 1.3 million acres.  In our opinion, that’s overkill.  You know it takes in a lot of area that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on it.”

Over half of Utah’s iconic landscapes already fall under federal oversight, and the Ivins’ say adding to the management backlog is unsustainable. 

Jared Berrett/Owner – Wild Expeditions/Bluff Dwellings Resort and Spa – Bluff, Utah: “I think the fear of a lot the local people is that it will change the way it is.”

Some locals have gotten to work developing the area to capture increased tourist dollars.  Jared Berrett built a resort and spa in Bluff.  He’s all for protecting the area, but echoes local sentiments weary of overexposure, so the expedition wing of his business focuses on small group excursions.

Jared Berrett/Owner – Wild Expeditions/Bluff Dwellings Resort and Spa – Bluff, Utah: “You’ve got truly world class scenery.  I’ve been to Egypt.  I’ve been to some pretty incredible historic sites.  I mean…it’s hard to stare at the pyramids and not be freaking amazed.  But I stand at some of the places we have here and I’m equally amazed.  If the floodgates did open, and you’ve got Wal-Mart lines heading out to some of these ruins…the sanctity of it and the sacredness…I think you would lose it.”

While Bears Ears might be a double-edged sword to some, tourism advocates are encouraged that President Biden’s first budget adheres closely to the $3 billion annual allocation under 2020’s Great American Outdoors Act for conservation and maintenance funds nationwide.

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “We have counters out there, trail counters, and we’ve seen an uptick in visitation.”

Over 20 million acres of Utah’s public lands fall under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which helps coordinate land use among various stakeholders, overseeing anything from motorized activities to hunting, hiking or administering grazing permits.

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “I’m a big advocate of multiple use.  I think it’s a great principle for the American public.  It allows us to all play in the same sandbox essentially.”

Gary Torres is Field Manager for the BLM, based out of the agency’s local Monticello office.  He says no matter what presidents decide, BLM has a knack for planning and working with a diverse range of collaborators.

Gary Torres/Field Manager/Bureau of Land Management/Monticello, Utah: “We need to be respectful of each other’s activities and we need to manage those resources so they’re here for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  And I think that’s the beauty of multiple use and sustained yield is that we are trying to do things that make sense now, and for the future.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.  Twitter: @mtmjosh

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