The naming of the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah has triggered intense and wide-ranging reactions locally and across the nation.
President Barack Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, announced the new national monument Wednesday in a statement on the White House web page.
“We are not concerned about a backlash about this designation, given the support for the location and the value and the cultural significance of this place,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
She told reporters in a conference call that the White House has favored a local solution to protect Bears Ears. But Congress failed last fall to act on a Utah compromise like the Public Lands Initiative. That’s why the president created the 1.35-million-acre monument.
“Of course, there are always political discussions,” she said. “But, on the merits, this is the right thing to do and consistent with our designations across the board.”
Native Americans who had proposed Bears Ears are pleased even though the monument is smaller than they’d originally proposed. But now they’ve got seats on a new commission to guide how the monument is managed in a first-of-its-kind arrangement.
And, although there’s been unanimous support for protecting the area’s cultural resources, many of Utah’s elected leaders from San Juan County to Washington are condemning the monument decision.
“Legislatively would have been a better way to do it,” said Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, at a news conference late Wednesday. “And we’d have had a better outcome and less divisiveness.”
Critics like Herbert are predicting that locals will have less access and that archaeological and sacred areas will become more vulnerable to looting and destruction.
Like Herbert, Republican Congressman Rob Bishop is vowing to undo the monument.
“If there was ever an example of overreach, this is it -- this is it,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. “And if a monument could actually be taken back, this becomes the perfect opportunity to do so.”
The new monument is larger than the state of Delaware. It’s believed to contain tens of thousands of archaeological sites that tell the story of humans in the Southwest over centuries.