A crowd estimated at 1,000 filled the San Juan High School auditorium and spilled over into adjacent rooms and corridors to hear testimony from five people.
Senator Lee heard from Utah Governor Gary Herbert, Congressman Rob Bishop, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, and local residents Chester Johnson and Lewis Singer.
Afterwards, several dozen local residents were able to voice their concerns at a town hall meeting format.
The hearing was in marked contrast to a July 16 hearing with federal officials in Bluff, which included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. At the Bluff meeting, the crowd was roughly equal for or against the national monument. Large groups of people from outside of the area attended the hearing to support the monument, including several large busloads from surrounding states.
In Blanding, primarily local residents made a strong voice against the proposed National Monument, with messages written on cars and on signs along the sidewalks. Nearly half of the large crowd were Native American. They presented a united front of local residents opposed to the creation of a national monument.
Senator Lee stated that San Juan County is “truly one of the most spectacular places on earth.” He added that he understood why “people travel from all over the world to have their breath taken away here.”
Lee stated that everyone seems to have four shared goals as they relate to the Bears Ears area, including a goal to protect the Bears Ears, to continue Native American use of the land, to establish Native American programs in the Bears Ears area, and to encourage multiple use of the public lands.
Lee stated that a national monument designation would not meet those goals. “The Antiquities Act simply does not allow for the inclusive multiple land use,” said Lee.
In contrast, the Senator said the Public Lands Initiative (PLI) “requires no leap of faith. Everyone was invited to participate in the PLI process. Some choose not to participate.”
Lee said the Bears Ears Coalition, which supports a national monument, refuses to meet and added, “We hope that they will meet because the debate clearly isn’t over.”
Governor Gary Herbert said he would speak on behalf of the people of Utah. “The consensus is to preserve the Bears Ears area; the discussion is how,” said Herbert. “The local people, who bear the brunt of the impact, should be considered. Those who are elected by the people bear the accountability for what the government does to the people.”
Herbert said that because of the lack of public process when the Grand Staircase National Monument was designated in 1996, there is still anger and distrust. “That was something done to us rather than something done with us,” said Herbert.
“If you really care about the land, the PLI is the best option.”
Congressman Rob Bishop said he has held more than 1,000 meetings to develop the PLI proposal.
Bishop stated that the Antiquities Act was used sparingly in the past, with Jimmy Carter the only president in a nearly 30-year period to designate national monuments.
Bishop said that grazing rights in the Grand Staircase National Monument have not been preserved, but have changed over time.
He added that while the PLI can still change and ensure cooperative co-management, “a Presidential proclamation cannot guarantee you squat.”
Commissioner Bruce Adams, a fourth generation rancher, said he wanted to represent the farmers and ranchers in San Juan County, and the city water sheds.
Adams said that cattlemen are the original environmentalists because they care for the land and see the value of wise management. He said 106,000 AUMs (animal unit month) were authorized for grazing in Grand Staircase, but only 40,000 were used last year.
Adams added that the watersheds for Monticello and Blanding are included in the proposed Bears Ears National Monument and losing the ability to maintain or develop water rights would have a devastating impact on these communities.
Adams said, “This is the most divisive issue to ever face this county.”
Chester Johnson, from Aneth, said that he believes in protection of the Bears Ears area. He supports the PLI, and opposes the Bears Ears National Monument.
Johnson said that Native Americans go to the Bears Ears to be peaceful and renew and said that the national monument does not include local Native Americans.
Johnson outlined a series of concerns and issues that he said shows the Navajo Nation does not serve local Navajos.
Lewis Singer, a career educator and foster parent to 57 Navajo children, discussed the impact of a national monument designation, ranging from firewood to access to over-visitation.
The hearing adjourned after approximately 90 minutes. It was followed by a town hall meeting in which a large number of local residents were able to express their concerns. A wide range of issues were discussed in the hearing.
Commissioner Phil Lyman spoke briefly and expressed his concern about the PLI.
Lyman said, “The PLI draft is horrendous for San Juan County. This is not a good proposal. Every time it comes back, it looks more and more like it was written by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.”
The San Juan County recommendation for the PLI has been significantly changed in the most recent version of the bill, particularly when compared to the recommendations from the six other counties that are part of the PLI.