Some Utah Navajos join Utah elected officials in opposing proposed Bears Ears Monument

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Andrew Harnik
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, comforts Utah resident and Navajo Susie Philemon as she becomes emotional while expressing her opposition to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument designation in southeast Utah, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Some Utah Navajos expressed opposition in a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday to the proposed executive order to make the Bears Ears area a national monument.

The monument would consist of 1.9 million acres of land in San Juan County, Utah, near a pair of buttes called Bears Ears. Some San Juan County residents are concerned the order will prevent them from doing necessary things to sustain their way of life and the monument will desecrate their ancestral lands.

The proposed Bears Ears monument in San Juan County, Utah would take up 1.9 million acres of land. The nearby members of the Navajo Nation are concerned that the monument would prevent them from accessing valuable resources. (Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition)

“Here is where we have game, gather herbs to heal our bodies and graze our livestock,” Navajo Lewis Singer said. “These resources allow us to take care of our community.”

Navajo Susie Philemon grew emotional when speaking of the promises the federal government has broken in regard to preserving native ancestral lands and monuments.

“Please don’t break more promises. Not again,” Philemon said, breaking into tears.

Andrew Harnik
Members of both the Utah and U.S. House of Representatives hold a news conference to oppose the proposed Bears Ears National Monument designation in southeast Utah on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Aneth Chapter and Blue Mountain Diné of the Navajo Nation sent an opposition packet to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier that same day, which included several petitions and resolutions opposing the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. It contained opposition from several groups from neighboring cities like Blanding and Monticello.

Utah legislators at the event spoke of their frustration with both the federal government and outside lobbying groups attempting to take control of Utah land.

“The unilateral designation supported by special-interest groups, many of whom are not from Utah, and have never visited San Juan County, shouldn’t be involved in this decision,” Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also expressed his disapproval of the federal government’s involvement in the issue.

“Frankly I hope the administration backs off. I think they should back off,” Hatch said. “They should work with us, and we’ll get this done in such a way that most everybody will be proud of what happens.”

Both the Navajo group and the Utah legislators agree the best approach in preserving the land lies not with an executive order but rather with other proposed federal legislation, called the Public Lands Initiative, which is sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

Andrew Harnik
Utah legislators listen as Utah resident and Navajo Susie Philemon, bottom right, expresses her opposition to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument designation in southeast Utah. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The initiative would designate pieces of federal lands for certain purposes such as conservation, recreation and economic development.

The Blue Mountain Diné Community of Navajos expressed its support for the Public Lands Initiative saying it “would create a National Conservation Area, which would better balance the interests of all local stakeholders and the need to preserve the area for all future generations of people.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert agreed the initiative would do more good for protecting the native land.

Andrew Harnik
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a news conference on the opposition to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument designation on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“The solution is the Public Lands Initiative, not a monument designation, simply because what we have in the public lands initiative was designed by these people, which is designed to meet their wants, their needs, their desires,” Herbert said. “And it can actually be guaranteed to them because we are putting it in statute.”