New Secretary of the Interior visits county to tour Bears Ears, prepare report to President

Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is visiting San Juan County this week to take a first-hand look at the Bears Ears National Monument.

Haaland will arrive in Utah midweek and tour the national monument. At some point following the visit, Haaland will release a report to President Joe Biden with recommendations for the boundaries of both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

While in Utah, Haaland will meet with Tribal officials, elected federal, state, and local leaders and other stakeholders.

The visitors will include Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Lt Gov Deidre Henderson, Senator Mitt Romney, Congressman Blake Moore and several Congressioal staff members.

However, a public meeting is not on the itinerary. This is due in part to pandemic concerns and the short time frame of her visit.

Despite that, administration officials from the Departments of the Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture report having held Tribal consultations and meetings with stakeholders, including Utah Governor Spencer Cox; members of the Utah congressional delegation; representatives from Kane, Garfield, San Juan, and Grand counties of Utah; members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition; non-profit organizations; and small business stakeholders.

Local officials have offered different views on the monument. In the past months, a variety of local elected officials made their platforms clear on the matter.

The San Juan County Commission sent a letter to Biden in December in support of the restoration of the Bears Ears Monument.

The letter was sent with a 2-1 vote, with Commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy voting in support of the letter and Commissioner Bruce Adams voting against.

The Bluff town council, Navajo Chapters in San Juan County, and Navajo Utah Commission, which is made up of elected representatives of Navajo Nation tribal members in Utah, also passed resolutions in favor of expanding the monument.

Monticello and Blanding city councils each passed joint resolutions opposed to the restoration of the boundaries of the monument.

Additional nonprofits and interest groups both inside and out of San Juan County have also expressed their support or opposition to the restoration of the Bears Ears National Monument boundaries.

Groups are working to have their viewpoints heard ahead of Haaland’s report to President Biden.

On his first day of office, President Biden issued an executive order requiring the Department of the Interior to review the boundaries of the two monuments and issue a report with recommendations within 60 days of the order, which was March 21.

Haaland was approved as the 54th U.S. Secretary of the Interior on March 15. One of the first orders of business for the first Native American Interior Secretary was to extend the deadline for the report and announce a visit to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments.

Utah federal representatives shared their appreciation for Secretary Haaland’s visit to the monuments and the people who live near them, ahead of any recommendations to the president.

In an interview with Redrock 92.7, Representative John Curtis said the Utah congressional delegation feels strongly that legislation is the best path forward for finalizing monument boundaries.

“There are a number of things people should like about [congressional legislation],” said Curtis. “One is it can’t move forward without consensus.

“The stakeholders have to be happy – all stakeholders – and that’s not the case with the presidential declaration. It’s also much more permanent.

“We’ve seen with President Obama, President Trump, and now President Biden this ping-ponging back and forth. Congressional legislation could solve that once and for all.”

Although there seems to be a deep divide between interest groups on the preferred size and scope of the monument and its protections, Curtis remains optimistic that a solution can be found.

“I came into [Congress] almost the moment President Trump was reducing the monument,” he said. “It was very clear to me the angst it caused, and quite frankly, the angst it will cause if President Biden rolls it back.

“As I talk to people on all sides of this issue, I just don’t believe we’re that far apart. I think people want to preserve and protect the area, but they want more control in the decisions here locally in how we choose to preserve and protect that.

“So I don’t think it’s a question of preserving and protecting. I think it’s more a discussion of what should be preserved and protected and where we should be able to recreate and do other activities like graze.

“I know these things are hard. They take a lot of time to put together, but if we can find a path forward, it would be a much better solution.”

A group of Native American tribes initially proposed a 1.9-million-acre monument. In 2016, President Obama designated the Bears Ears National Monument across 1.35-million acres in the county. In 2017, President Donald Trump shrunk the monument by 85 percent to 201,876 acres.

Secretary Haaland is the third Interior Secretary to visit San Juan County over the past three presidential administrations.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, is the first Native American member of a presidential cabinet. She was a Congresswoman from New Mexico before becoming Interior Secretary.

The Department of the Interior manages a number of government agencies, including several agencies that have an extensive impact on San Juan County.

This includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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