Local reaction to the newly created Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah was mixed. Conservation groups, businesses and Ute Mountain Ute tribal members supported it, and Montezuma and San Juan County commissioners were less enthusiastic.
The Bears Ears National Monument will cover 1.35 million acres, the White House said Wednesday. In a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists, the designation protects land that is considered sacred and is home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
It’s a blow for Utah state Republican leaders and many rural residents who fear that it will add another layer of federal control and close the area to energy development and recreation, a common refrain in the battle over use of the West’s vast open spaces.
Regina Whiteskunk, a former Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member, lobbied strongly for the monument, including traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with top officials of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“I’m ecstatic and was in tears for a bit when I learned the president has given this land permanent protection,” she said. “Native tribes put aside their differences and came together to preserve lands we rely on and are a part of our heritage.”
Deborah Gangloff, CEO of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, based in Cortez, said the monument’s cultural and natural resources are a key aspect of the center’s mission.
“We are thrilled because it protects significant areas of historical importance, from ancient Native American sites to the more recent Mormon settlers,” she said. “A national monument is the best way to go in order to protect these areas.”
Commissioners in San Juan County, Utah, fought against proposals for a national monument, and proposed legislation to improve management of the area, but it was not passed by Congress.
The monument represents their worst fears, said commissioner Phil Lyman.
“I’m appalled that we have a president who acts as if there are no limitations on his power,” Lyman said. “It is a top-down executive order that the people here are very unhappy about.”
He said San Juan County will fight to have the monument overturned, although no such effort has succeeded before.
“My money is on President-elect (Donald) Trump to get it reversed,” Lyman said. “The country needs to get back on track to where we are not ruled by a king, and the local people are listened to.”
Montezuma County Commissioner James Lambert empathized with Lyman and believes national monuments tend to be unfunded mandates that restrict multiple uses.
“They don’t have the money to take care of land as it is, and this will just draw more attention to the area,” he said.
He pointed to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, where he said it is difficult to establish grazing and multiple uses.
Osprey Packs advocated for the Bears Ears Monument, and was pleased.
“We are incredibly happy and applaud the president for protecting these priceless lands for the future,” said spokesman Scott Robertson. “The area is in our backyard and is a huge draw for our employees and for recruiting top talent.”
John Palmer, program manager for Mancos-based Deer Hill Expeditions said they rely on the new Bears Ears National Monument for their outdoor education programs.
About 30 percent of their backpack trips are in that area, including Grand Gulch, Slickhorn Canyon, Dark Canyon and Gravel Canyon, he said.
“We’ve been taking students there for 34 years and look forward to being a leader for responsible recreation in our newest monument,” Palmer said.
When students backpack for the first time in the Cedar Mesa area included in the monument it is transformative experience.
“To see them look at the stars in Dark Canyon, enjoy the silence of the wilderness, or see a flash flood is really a profound experience for them,” Palmer said. “We’re excited the area will be protected for the next generation.”
This article was updated on Dec. 29, 2016, to correct the name of Osprey Packs spokesman Scott Robertson.