Curtis holds meeting to explain, seek input on bill
Approximately 100 local residents learned more about the proposed Bears Ears Congressional bill at a town-hall style meeting on February 12 in Monticello.
Congressman John Curtis is sponsoring the bill and seeks public input on it. The bill has been introduced before a subcommittee and has been the focus of intense opposition on both sides of the debate.
“Everyone is mad at this bill,” said Curtis. “That might be a good signal that it is a good bill.”
Curtis explained that he had been a Congressman for three weeks when President Donald Trump shrunk the boundaries of the original Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent.
He added that the process to create a Congressional bill was rolling before he started serving and said, “A three-week Congressman is in no way prepared to solve an issue of this complexity.”
However, he added, “I’m the representative of this area, and I wanted to be part of the debate,” so he became the bill’s sponsor.
Curtis explained that despite the challenges the bill faces, “the alternatives are not really good.
“A change in the Presidency could see this flip back to the larger designation. And then, down the road, another Republican president could flip it back. In this scenario, the losers are all of you and the land.”
Curtis added, “Another path is to let the lawsuits play out. But at best, it will be a decade before it is resolved.”
He then explained, “The only way a legislative solution works is if it passes,” and outlined the process to get a bill passed and signed.
Curtis said his bill features several elements that are missing in the presidential declarations, which used the Antiquities Act.
These elements include a management plan, funding for ten law enforcement officers, an archaeology protection unit, a management group made up primarily of local residents, and the Bears Ears Commission.
Curtis said the management group has decision-making authority, unlike the advisory role of the current monument.
Several concerns have been expressed that the bill withdraws mineral extraction rights from the 1.35-million acre boundaries of the original monument. Curtis later explained that the mineral rights feature was added to the bill in order to make it attractive to Democrat members of Congress.
Curtis added, “We are not getting much support for this bill. It may die.”
Curtis said that with a few tweaks, he is hopeful the House of Representatives could pass the bill on a party-line vote.
He added that a Senate bill may need to be included in an Omnibus Bill to be passed.
A number of local residents made comments and offered suggestions to help strengthen the bill, including residents on both sides of the debate.
The public portion of the meeting was informative, passionate, and respectful as local residents gathered to participate in the public process.
Issues addressed in the public comment section of the meeting include the funding burdens for local government, exchanging SITLA properties – which could be traded out of the monument – for federal land in San Juan County, and putting the law enforcement officers under the control of the local sheriff rather than federal agencies.
Friends of Cedar Mesa opposes the bill because it excludes the vast majority of archaeology sites in the area. A representative added that the biggest problem is visitation. They ask Curtis to rethink the boundaries of the bill.
Residents from Blanding, Monticello, Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Westwater, Hatch, and south of Bluff all spoke, expressing a wide variety of opinions and offering a variety of suggestions.
Topics addressed included local input into management decisions, economic development, private property rights, the need for compromise, and defensible boundaries for the monument.
Mining rights were discussed at length, including a comment that, “No one is beating down the door to drill on this land.”
Another comment asked, “Why the focus on minerals when antiquities are the threatened resource?”
As the meeting closed, Curtis admitted he had been nervous about the meeting. He thanked the crowd and added, “You have all been very respectful; I appreciate that. Frankly, I care more about what this group thinks than the others I have met with.”