The special session Bears Ears debate concludes

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Mark Maryboy speaks as Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB) and Tribal leaders stand in support of protecting the Bears Ears at a rally in the Utah State Capitol Rotunda in Salt Lake City. Attendees at the rally called for President Obama to protect sacred sites and honor ancestral lands by designating Bears Ears National Monument. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers say the creation of a new national monument in southeastern Utah looks nearly inevitable, but they passed a resolution anyway calling on the Obama administration to not use executive power to protect the Bears Ears area.

Meeting in a special session Wednesday, May 18, Utah senators and representatives overrode a veto that had stalled a controversial $5 million education spending plan and passed the anti-monument resolution.

The monument resolution generated controversy as members of multiple Native American tribes rallied at the Capitol both in support of and against the monument. Leonardo DiCaprio was even talking about it on social media. Lawmakers fear that President Obama will use executive power granted by the Antiquities Act to unilaterally create the Bears Ears national monument.  

Trent Nelson
Attendees at the rally called for President Obama to protect sacred sites and honor ancestral lands by designating Bears Ears National Monument. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Lawmakers say that all signs show the Obama administration is poised to create the 1.9 million-acre monument in the Bears Ears area. Utahns have not forgotten how President Clinton used a similar process to create the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument in southern Utah in 1996.

After nearly two hours of debate in the House of Representatives, the issue of sending President Obama a letter expressing opposition to the monument and a possible lawsuit against him for it, arrived to the Senate. Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, presented the resolution to the Senate.

He said there are better ways to conserve the land than through the Antiquities Act, which gives the president the authority to create monuments without the consent of the state. “We are opposed to a new monument in Utah and we will do whatever it takes to oppose it,” Hinkins said.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, said he did not think the resolution would have the effect that its supporters wanted. “I’m not sure what it’s going to do to take this resolution and throw it in the face of the president,” he said. He offered a solution of voting against the resolution and trying to communicate better with officials in Washington.

The suggestion to vote against sending the resolution to the president was met with opposition. Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said, “For us not to make sure our president knows what we think about this would be a mistake … The state of Utah is not going to lie down.”

The senators said they were not explicitly debating the conservation of the land, many just wanted to make sure Utah had a say in the process.

Hinkins talked about the responsibility of the federal and state governments to work together. “The federal government didn’t create the states, the states created the federal government,” he said. “For us to not have a voice is unconstitutional.”

The resolution passed the Senate 22-5 and 64-10 in the House, divided largely along party lines with Utah’s small democratic minority opposing the measure. Lawmakers will send a letter and resolution to Obama and they’ve asked Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to consider a lawsuit against the president if he proceeds with the Bears Ears creation.

Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, took up the education spending in the Senate in short order during the session that started at 4 p.m. and continued into the evening. The money will be used to fund the Upstart program, elementary school electronic reading evaluation programs and an information technology academy that educates students in basic computer programs.

“I think these programs are worth reinstating,” Adams said. He talked about the success these programs have had helping students stay above state benchmarks. Forbes magazine has even recognized the Upstart program for the success it has had.

The Senate voted 27-1 to enact the law, which will go in effect on July 1.

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