Bears Ears Now Has the Support of Its Home County's Leadership

The San Juan County commission voted two-to-one in favor of a resolution that rescinds the county's previous opposition to the monument and condemns its reduction by Donald Trump.
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A view from the north of the Valley of the Gods, one of the areas excised from Bears Ears National Monument by President Donald Trump's December 4th, 2017, proclamation.

A view from the north of the Valley of the Gods, one of the areas excised from Bears Ears National Monument by President Donald Trump's December 4th, 2017, proclamation.

The county commission of Utah's San Juan County—home of Bears Ears National Monument, which President Donald Trump vastly reduced in 2017—has historically opposed the designation of the land as a national monument. But it has now changed its tune: On Tuesday, the commission voted two-to-one in favor of a resolution that rescinds the county's previous opposition to the monument and condemns its reduction.

Specifically, the resolution rescinds all prior resolutions opposing the establishment of the monument, or calling for the dissolution or reduction of it. Most notably, it also "condemn[s] the actions of President Donald Trump in violating the Antiquities Act of 1906 by unlawfully reducing the Bears Ears National Monument" in his December 4th, 2017, proclamation, and "call[s] upon the United States to fully restore" the monument.

The vote does not signal a change of heart, but rather reflects a major shift in the county commission's make-up: Thanks to recent redistricting, it is now Utah's first-ever majority-Navajo county commission. Previously, the county's three districts were drawn such that most Native American voters were grouped into one district, but in 2016, a federal judge ruled that the voting districts were unconstitutional and ordered the county to redraw them. (According to the census, Navajos make up the majority of the county's population by a small margin.) In response to the shift in representation, Utah state representative and former San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman—notorious for the time he rode an ATV down a trail that was closed to motorized vehicles in protest of federal land control—has raised the possibility of splitting the county in two to bring power back to his white-majority hometown of Blanding.

Both of the Navajo members of the commission, Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, voted in favor of the Bears Ears resolution. The dissenting vote came from the commission's white member, Bruce Adams. (When I was in San Juan County for then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke's visit to Bears Ears during his monuments review in 2017, Adams greeted Zinke wearing a white "MAKE SAN JUAN COUNTY GREAT AGAIN" cowboy hat—and gave Zinke one too.)

The resolution helped to confirm "the strong local and indigenous support for permanent protection of the Bears Ears cultural landscape," Josh Ewing, executive director of the conservation non-profit Friends of Cedar Mesa, writes in an email. Though he notes that there is still considerable opposition to the monument in San Juan County, Ewing says that "these actions end the false narrative that locals were united in their opposition to the monument, which was used by Utah leaders and President Trump to justify decimating Bears Ears National Monument." Friends of Cedar Mesa crowd-funded and built its own Bears Ears Education Center, which opened in September of 2018.*

The vote comes a few weeks after the introduction of a House bill to restore and expand Bears Ears and increase tribal involvement in the monument's management. The Canyon Echo, a local website, reports that San Juan County Commissioner Maryboy presented a resolution supporting that bill before the meeting in which the vote took place.

The American public never supported the monument's reduction in the first place: When the Department of the Interior collected public comments on its original review of 27 national monuments including Bears Ears, multiple analyses found that at least 99 percent of the more than one million comments submitted opposed the elimination or weakening of monument protections. It's widely believed that the federal government failed to take these comments into consideration—but a district judge ruled in August of last year that Trump could keep secret his reasons for shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments.

The House bill to restore Bears Ears has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee, and a lawsuit opposing the monument's reduction is ongoing.

*Update—February 20th, 2019: This post has been updated to include a statement from Josh Ewing of Friends of Cedar Mesa.

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