Similar-sized groups have met in San Juan County in the past two weeks to protest or celebrate the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument. This is a portion of the crowd that gathered in Monticello on December 29 to protest the monument. Staff photo
While it has been two weeks since U.S. President Barack Obama created the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument, the process is just beginning to address the next question, “What happens next?”.
Designation of the new monument, which includes more than one quarter of the total landmass of San Juan County, has been celebrated and protested, including large gatherings in Monticello on December 29 and in Monument Valley on January 7 (see the accompanying story).
It remains to be seen what will happen in a new administration under the direction of President Donald Trump. Trump has threatened to overturn a number of executive actions made by Obama.
A group of local residents and political leaders in the state have discussed and supported the possibility of Trump cutting back or even entirely overturning the designation. #Trumpthismonument is a popular hashtag on a number of social media sites.
While the likelihood (and legality) of cutting back or overturning the designation is entirely unknown, legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate may restrict use of the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that was used to make the designation.
The bill, sponsored by Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, would mandate that use of the Antiquities Act would require state approval and Congressional authorization. The bill was introduced in 2016 and did not pass. The bill would not impact previously designated monuments, such as the Bears Ears.
A significant portion of the outcry in opposition to the monument comes from the fact that the designation was opposed by the entire Congressional designation from Utah, in addition to every statewide elected official, the Utah legislators representing the area, and the San Juan County Commission.
While the President and Congress may or may not cut back or repeal the designation, the federal bureaucracies will surely have new leadership at the helm over the next four years. This new leadership is almost certain to pursue a different agenda than the leadership over the past eight years.
The designation of the massive monument was made at the tail end of President Obama’s administration. The development and implementation of the monument’s management plan will occur under the administration of a new president.
One issue that remains very much unresolved is the 109,000 acres of state trust lands within the monument.
In the designation, Obama directed the federal government to “explore, within 30 days, a land exchange with the State of Utah.”
The exchange would transfer Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land within the Bears Ears boundary in exchange for BLM-managed land outside of the boundary.
The trust lands were set aside at statehood. Proceeds from the sale or lease of the trust lands are designated for use to educate school children.
They could be traded for federal land in areas outside of the monument. Local school officials are calling for the exchange to be for federal land within San Juan County.
On January 6, the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) board unanimously voted to delay any talks on an exchange after the Stewards of San Juan sent a letter to the SITLA Board calling for a halt on any land negotiations in relation to the monument.
“The Stewards of San Juan County stand with our elected city, county, and state officials, as well as two local Native American tribes who will be asking the incoming Administration to overturn this designation.
“That is why it is extremely important to us that no land exchange negotiations take place between now and January 19, as requested in the proclamation.”
The letter goes on to state, “For President Obama to ask that the Secretary of the Interior deliver a memorandum of understanding regarding the potential for these land exchanges by one day before he leaves office is more than just illogical, it is sabotage and an affront to the school children and teachers of Utah.”
The issue could be of critical importance to the San Juan School District. For the current school year, proceeds from the trust fund generated more than $315,000 for the San Juan School District.
In total, the trust fund contains more than $2 billion and generated nearly $50 million in interest in the past year. The funds are used by students throughout the state.
The sale or lease of trust lands can add to the local property tax base. For that reason, local school officials are likely to request that trust lands be swapped for federal properties primarily within the San Juan School District.
A management plan for the new monument will be created by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS). It is anticipated that the process will take three to five years and include an exhaustive public process.
The federal agencies will be responsible for the specific lands in the monument that they currently manage.
It is likely to create an administrative challenge since the two agencies are in separate departments in the federal government, BLM under the Department of the Interior and USFS under the Department of Agriculture.
Management of the new monument will be different than the national monuments that are already in San Juan County. Hovenweep, Natural Bridges and Rainbow Bridge national monuments are managed by the National Park Service, rather than the BLM and USFS.
The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, adjacent to San Juan County in southwest Colorado, is managed by the BLM. It allows managed multiple use, restricts firewood gathering, and restricts access to several key archaeological sites to licensed archaologists.
Gary Torres, the acting associate state director of the BLM in Utah, states that the state-level management of the BLM learned of the designation at the same time as the general public.
Torres said, “First, we are working hard to understand what is in the proclamation that created the monument. It is not the same as other proclamations and includes specific language regarding grazing, multiple use, and creation of the Bears Ears Commission.
“Our big commitment is to try and work with everyone involved. This will be a big process and we are committed to do it right.”
A San Juan County native, Torres is the acting state director on temporary assignment to the state office. Ongoing, he is the director of the BLM office inVernal, UT.