San Juan County residents sat down to discuss their opposition to the Bears Ears Monument designation. (Theresa Davis)
BLANDING, Utah — Lyle Bayles was born and raised in San Juan County. On a crisp Saturday morning, Bayles loads up his pickup with a terrier named Tick who follows him everywhere. He drives toward the vast public lands outside of town.
Bayles waves to the stray camper or wood gatherer as his truck slowly winds up the mountain. Every once in a while, he spots a deer. But for the most part, it’s just the man and his dog.
On fall afternoons, Bayles and his family go up on the mountain and listen to the elk bugle. Bayles has driven, hiked, or ridden a horse through much of the land surrounding the Bears Ears buttes in southeastern Utah.
“You can go forever and the land is just rugged and untouched,” Bayles said. “There’s peace and quiet like you can’t believe. I’ve been coming out here for years, and I haven’t even scratched the surface.”
But all that might change if Bears Ears is designated as a national monument.
Blanding is a quiet little town — population 3,375 — that borders the proposed monument. The town is home to Ute, Navajo and Anglo and is nicknamed the “base camp to adventure.”
The proposal to make Bears Ears a national monument has created divisions throughout the state of Utah. But in San Juan County, residents of all backgrounds are taking a stand to oppose the monument designation. While support for a monument has received national media coverage, residents in small towns including Blanding, Bluff and Monticello have started their own grassroots movement to oppose the monument.
They have educated themselves on the issues. The group’s website and Facebook page tell their stories and assert their rights as citizens who would be directly affected by any economic, physical or political changes a monument would create.
Several dozen residents said they are “100 percent opposed to the Bears Ears Monument.” Here’s why:
Increase in vandalism
Blanding resident Steven Payne said he doubts the designation would reduce the already-low incidents of vandalism in the area. In 2015, the region reported only a dozen incidences of vandalism, while the nearby Grand-Staircase Escalante reported hundreds of incidences.
“The government has failed to adequately protect ruins that have already been under their care for decades,” Payne said.
Many residents say that the monument would do just the opposite of what it proposes by bringing a larger influx of people than the land can handle.
Navajo resident Brittney Tohtsonie said it is frustrating to think about what would happen if the monument were approved.
“Tourists will come in bus loads walking on our sacred land and herbs. The rocks will be scarred for life with meaningless names,” Tohtsonie said. “Canyon De Chelly, Grand Canyon National Park and Havasupai are all victims of the government taking land from my people. I say doodah (no) to the national monument. Di shikeyah (this is my home).”
Many residents agree that certain areas included in the proposal do need to be protected because of their historical significance, but they said the monument is not the proper way to create that protection.
Byron Clark is the vice president of the Blue Mountain Dine, a group of off-reservation Navajos living in San Juan County. Overall, he said the land in the proposal is already under enough protection from vandalism.
“Yes, areas like Cedar Mesa need the highest protection, but not all of it,” Clark said. “It’s so vast, and it seems kind of reckless to say all of it’s a monument.”
Previous national monument history
Those opposed to the monument have watched the impact a national monument has on the surrounding towns as an example of the potential negative effects a Bears Ears monument designation could have.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was protected by law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, and includes the Utah towns of Escalante, Boulder, Glendale, Big Water and Kanab. The designation was accompanied by some of the same controversy that is occurring today — locals and Utah politicians opposed the move as an overuse of the rules in the Antiquities Act. The monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and currently comprises the largest land area of all national monuments at just over 1.8 million acres.
Kara Laws, a small business owner in Blanding, said government regulation tied to Grand Staircase is a good predictor of the loss of local freedoms in a potential Bears Ears Monument.
“We know that as time goes on the rules and regulations will become more restrictive . . . We have yet to find a national monument that tightened down and then allowed more access,” Laws said. “They have never gone that way. They always restricted the land more and more.”
One criticism many San Juan County residents have heard about their opposition movement is that locals are not preserving the land properly, and that a monument designation is necessary to fix that problem.
India Workman is a 16-year-old Blanding resident who disagrees with those accusations.
“There are a lot of lies going around about Bears Ears becoming a monument. We do take such good care of our land because it’s our land,” Workman said.
One of the biggest grievances residents said they have is that the members of the Inter-tribal Coalition that submitted the monument proposal to the Obama administration have little connection to the land.
In the Inter-tribal Coalition proposal, pro-monument citizen Eric Descheenie of the Navajo Nation addressed this issue.
“Some people say that we haven’t been at Bears Ears in recent times. Others say that some of us aren’t from Utah and don’t belong there,” Descheenie said. “All of that is so definitely wrong. We were there before any of the states and live nearby. We don’t see Bears Ears in terms of state lines.”
Still, many residents say that tribal proximity actually does matter. When representatives of the Inter-tribal Coalition came to San Juan County in June to present details of the monument proposal, more than a dozen residents said that the representatives “couldn’t even point in the direction of the Bears Ears.”
Opponents say that most of the tribes that support the proposal are from Arizona or other states with no proximity to the Bears Ears. They say Native American support for the monument is a cover for environmental conservationists whose ultimate goal is to restrict public access to the land.
Bayles drives up to a lookout called Texas Flats; the viewpoint showcases a diverse array of land that would be included in the monument.
“The pro-monument people show pictures of beautiful places like this one, and say “Protect the Bears Ears,” Bayles said. “Well of course you’d want to protect the land if you just got that pitch. But if you don’t know the whole story, you won’t know the best way to protect it.”
Environmental groups out of California, Washington, D.C., and other states support a monument designation. San Juan County residents say proponents have a general unfamiliarity with the land and won’t feel the impact of the proposed change in legislation and regulation, so they should have little say in the issue.
San Juan County has the lowest per capita income of any county in the state, and those who want the monument tout its potential to bring in revenue. However, residents do not foresee long-term economic benefits because they say seasonal tourism is not sustainable. Grand Staircase-Escalante is an example of the economic struggles that a tourism economy faces, residents say.
Robert Wilcox has been a law enforcement officer in Blanding for 20 years. He said San Juan County can’t sustain a tourist economy that would be nearly dead in the winter.
“I look at the town of Escalante and how it is almost a ghost town now,” Wilcox said. “The same thing will happen to the communities here.”
Joy Howell is in the hospitality business in Mexican Hat, Utah.
“Any monetary value would not be worth the cost of losing access to those special places that make living here possible,” Howell said. “Our lifestyle has come under attack by an out-of-control government who is backed by outside interests.”
Reagan Workman is a 14-year-old resident of Blanding. Workman said locals care more about the land than any economic benefits from a national monument.
“Here in Blanding, we are a community of hunters, ranchers, and farmers. Our parents don’t make much money here and could easily move us somewhere they can make much more money. They stay because (of) this land and the people,” Workman said.
Strain on water resources
In a desert landscape, many residents also worry about the strain on water that a tourist influx would cause, particularly during summer months.
Blanding resident Steven Payne said water supply concerns go beyond mere tourism.
“The watershed for Blanding and Monticello will be located within the national nonument, and the locals will have reduced access to that water and water collection maintenance,” Payne said.
Bayles echoed that same concern: “We just don’t have the water supply to handle an influx of tourists,” Bayles said.
Destruction of traditions
“There is no reason to create division between the people here by granting provisions based on the color of skin; there is no beauty in fences, signs, crowding, and caging us in. This is not power.” – Eva Workman – Navajo
Rich Monson is a science teacher in San Juan County. He said there is no price he can put on the traditions he has continued with his family on the land.
“I have travelled to a few places in the world, but my favorite place is Elk Ridge and Abajo Mountain. Having the opportunity to go to the ountain is life sustaining to my family,” Monson said.
Destiny Hatch Bingham is a lifelong resident of southeastern Utah. She is of Anglo, Hispanic and Ute descent.
“There isn’t a single childhood memory that doesn’t have us being in the hills and mountains. Please don’t make us have to explain to our kids and our elders why we have to pay to be in our own backyard,” Hatch-Bingham said.
Laws said approximately 31 percent of San Juan County residents live below the poverty line. “We look to the mountains to fill that gap. We gather nuts and herbs in the spring and fall. In the late fall we hunt. And when our neighbors don’t fill their hunting tags we share our kill, trying to make sure everyone has something. Some families depend on the hunt. Some families depend on the gathering. We all depend on the mountains.”
Nicole Holliday, a native of San Juan County, said she fears the potential destruction of traditions and lifestyle that could accompany a monument designation.
“There are many whose relationship with the land is strictly recreational. And to those, we say come. Come and partake. Come and enjoy. But understand this, our very livelihood depends on the land,” Holliday said.
Restrictions on wood gathering and hunting
Most San Juan County citizens use wood to heat their homes in the winter, gathering it under regulations already in place by the BLM and the National Forest Service. Monument opponents agree that restrictions on wood-gathering would severely limit their heat source.
“We gather wood to heat our homes, we hunt wild game to provide food, and we use it as a refuge and a place to spend quality time with our family. We use, respect, and love this great land that provides us with so much,” said resident Colby Monson.
Loss of education funding
Merri Shumway is a San Juan School Board member. Her father was once a San Juan County Commissioner and she said the monument designation could have negative effects on education funding. Currently, the School and Institutional Trust Lands that were granted to the state of Utah in 1896 (when Utah became a state) provide funding for the schools in San Juan County.
“If the monument is designated, those lands will be taken back, and any money that they would have produced will no longer be able to fund education,” Shumway said.
Public Lands Initiative
Another layer to the Bears Ears controversy is the Public Lands Initiative legislative proposal, backed primarily by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
According to utahpli.com, the Initiative is “federal legislation that designates certain federal lands for conservation purposes, certain lands for recreational purposes, and other lands for economic development purposes.”
While most San Juan County locals agree that the Public Lands Initiative isn’t perfect, they said it is a better alternative compared to the legislation of the Bears Ears National Monument proposal.
City Councilman Joel Lyman and his family have lived in the San Juan County region for more than a century.
“I know the PLI isn’t perfect, but at least it’s an attempt to involve local decision making into what happens to the land,” Lyman said.
“We often feel hopeless in this situation as the pro monument supporters attempt to beat us down time and time again,” Laws said. “They have been planning this for years. We only realized the reality of it very recently. We, as a community, are heartbroken and terrified.”
Rachel Clark is a member of the Blue Mountain Dine chapter of the Navajo nation.
“I think it was really a shock when we saw just how much this community was coming together to oppose this monument,” Clark said. “None of us want it. It’s our livelihood at stake.”
Suzette Morris is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute from White Mesa. She was actively involved in voting out leaders of the Ute Mountain Ute Council who supported the monument proposal, such as Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk. “We’ve got Ute and Navajo, who based on history should hate each other, working together to oppose this monument,” Morris said.
Janet Wilcox is a longtime resident of San Juan County.
“I think people have really underestimated this community,” Wilcox said. “We are doing everything we can to make people aware of the real issues.”
Joni Dixon is a Navajo from Blanding. She says she has faith in the county’s ability to come together and oppose the monument.
“This isn’t just about the Native Americans, it affects the entire community,” Dixon said. “We will continue to fight this.”
The majority of San Juan County is on edge over the monument controversy. Residents say a fear of the unknown prevails every time the monument designation becomes more likely.
Bayles points to the sprawling public land of San Juan County — the arches, the cliffs, the buttes, the Indian ruins, the forests — and shakes his head as he thinks about what a monument designation would really mean.
“Making it all a national monument, all it’s doing is prostituting these lands,” Bayles said.