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Proposed Utah Monument The Latest Flashpoint In Fight Over Western Land

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

In southeastern Utah, American Indian tribes are also hoping for help from the federal government. Tribes want the Obama administration to protect a swath of wild lands and archaeological sites by creating a new national monument to be called Bears Ears. Such a monument would span nearly 2 million acres, which concerns some locals and Utah political leaders fighting the designation. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Judy Fahys reports.

JUDY FAHYS, BYLINE: The twin buttes called Bears Ears rise beyond the red rock formations of the Valley of the Gods and Utah Cedar Mesa. Local tribes have asked President Obama to declare this unprotected part of San Juan County a national monument.

REGINA LOPEZ-WHITESKUNK: The land cannot be destroyed today for the sake of the almighty dollar.

FAHYS: Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is a leader of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and a co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

LOPEZ-WHITESKUNK: We can't stand by and watch the land be killed.

FAHYS: The coalition's trying to convince the president to protect this place before he leaves office. Congress gave that power to presidents in the 1906 Antiquities Act. Utes, Navajos, Zuni and Hopi want to manage the monument together with federal agencies. They want to protect tens of thousands of archaeological sites from being raided and looted. Whiteskunk says it's also important to preserve living traditions, like gathering herbs and firewood.

LOPEZ-WHITESKUNK: I am the voice of the air, the water, the land, the animals. I have to be this voice for all of this because who else will be?

FAHYS: But opponents say a national monument would make it harder to use the land. Some cast it as another battle in the war over public lands in the West. Utah's Republican political leaders have been petitioning Obama to scrap the monument idea. State lawmakers have voted against it. San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams says a monument would go too far.

BRUCE ADAMS: There is just a large amount of turmoil going on in the county.

FAHYS: Adams and the local stakeholders he represents want to preserve economic traditions, too, like mining and ranching. They propose something different - protecting archaeological sites in a national conservation area that Congress would enact.

ADAMS: That's the proposal that we have been backing from day one.

FAHYS: The legislation would protect less acreage. It also could take a long time, and that worries Josh Ewing.

JOSH EWING: This is not a debatable thing. There are verifiable facts here.

FAHYS: Ewing leads the conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa. He calls the archaeology around Bears Ears world class, but looters keep pillaging cliff dwellings, and vandals continue wrecking rock art. Ewing says that's why this place needs to be protected now.

EWING: This area is legitimately being damaged on a regular basis, in recent times, and we all should care about that instead of trying to sweep it under the rug.

FAHYS: Ewing doubts a gridlock Congress could act soon enough. But President Obama could guarantee protection immediately by declaring it a monument.

JONAH YELLOWMAN: (Speaking Navajo).

FAHYS: That's what Navajo Jonah Yellowman is hoping for this sacred place. He's standing between the Bears Ears buttes admiring the view.

YELLOWMAN: Wow. There's a great leader right there.

FAHYS: He sees a red-tail hawk, then another. They cruise above the Ponderosa pines.

YELLOWMAN: They tell us that this a good sign, and our ancestors, our loved ones, you know, they look after us.

FAHYS: The Obama administration is coming to Utah for a listening session later this month. And people here are talking about Bears Ears. For NPR News, I'm Judy Fahys on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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