Partisan Votes Advance Calls to Overturn Bears Ears, Reduce Grand Staircase-Escalante

Image Credit: US Geological Sruvey

The aftermath of the Bears Ears National Monument designation reached a fever pitch on Capitol Hill Tuesday, as two resolutions made in reaction to the measure were debated on the House floor.

HCR 11 – Concurrent Resolution Urging the President to Rescind the Bears Ears National Monument Designation is sponsored by Speaker of the House Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper) and expresses strong opposition to the monument designation while urging the President to rescind said designation.

Representative Angela Romero (Democrat – Salt Lake City) criticized lawmakers for meddling in tribal affairs. “For some, it’s infuriating when the federal government would overreach its jurisdiction and meddle in state affairs. But the state government is not the only government that has contended with local affairs. Tribal governments have the constitutional right under the Commerce Clause to exercise their form of governance and determine for themselves their future. It would be hypocritical of us in this legislative body to impose this resolution, which is clearly a symbolic attack on tribal sovereignty, to get back at the federal government. In essence, we are doing the same thing to the tribes as some of us perceive the federal government doing to us here in Utah.” Romero noted that seven chapters of the Navajo Nation overwhelmingly support the monument designation.

Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan) discounted the notion of support. “It’s not about support. It’s about a constitution. If it’s not about a constitution, we’re not a republic, we’re not governed by the rule of law. We should just give up on the 30 million acres [that is under the control of the federal government in Utah] now and just avoid the pain,” said Ivory. “Within the designation, the President did from vacation sitting in Washington with the stroke of a pen drawing a great big circle around 1.35 million acres in Utah [and with it] 109,000 acres of school trust lands. Imagine if you went and seized 109,000 acres of land or any other asset from our schoolchildren. I would submit you’d be spending some time at the Point of the Mountain perhaps.”

Representative Elizabeth Weight (Democrat – West Valley City) made a motion to amend the resolution, asking to erase lines referring to the acreage of School Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA) within the monument’s boundaries. “The designation of school trust lands is referred to often in respect to monuments and other public lands in our state. It often gets referred to in a way that makes it sound like the school trust lands are a primary resource and a critical resource for funding our school system. The funds that are derived from the use of the lands provide some supplemental resources for our state’s educational system. Although the revenue generated is appreciated for what it provides, the funds are not a primary source of funding nor are they fundamental to the support of education.” Weight also said that there is a system in place for exchanging trust lands when they happen to be located within a monument.

Hughes questioned the idea of downplaying the impact of SITLA lands, a fund which has grown to more than $2 billion and sends $50 million to every Utah elementary, middle, and high school, as well as community councils. “To relegate that as some supplemental income that is immaterial in its impact and within this monument is not accurate,” said Hughes. “To argue that you would take that out because it is immaterial to the impact is to not appreciate how important the School Institutional Trust Lands are to our public education system. Anybody who’s been here understands that that is one of our critical components and one I wish we would see more of, not less.” The motion to amend failed on a voice vote.

In Fiscal Year 2017, the Education Fund received 4.015 billion in appropriations, meaning that SITLA accounted for 1.2 percent of total education funds.

Representative Joel Briscoe (Democrat – Salt Lake City) spoke about the importance of preserving the sacred tribal land for future generations. “If I were a Buddhist, I would revere the place where Buddha was born in Nepal or the tree under which he achieved enlightenment. If I was a Muslim, I would revere Mecca. There are sacred places in the world for me: Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Salt Lake City, Nauvoo. These places are sacred to these tribes. There are stories told down through the generations for these tribes about things that will happen in the future in this land. Amazingly, getting together, they all coalesce on the same place,” said Briscoe. “I have stood on the side of Bears Ears and looked over the Red Canyon and the White Canyon to the west that have some of the richest archeological history in the world. It was not included in the PLI; pieces of it are included in the Bears Ears National Monument. It saddens me to think it could be taken away.”

The PLI, or Public Lands Initiative, was formally introduced by Utah Representative Rob Bishop (Republican) last year. According to Bishop, the PLI struck a compromise between the wishes of the state, energy and recreational interests, and the Department of the Interior. Former President Obama stated that he was willing to specifically wait on the outcome of the PLI in congress prior to making any designation. Interestingly, Obama’s Bears Ears designation was smaller than the PLI’s request and much smaller than the total protected lands requested by Native American leaders.

Representative Keven Stratton (Republican – Orem) called the Bears Ears designation an “act of repulsive political cronyism.” “We have a strong legal argument to overturn this, but there is no need to go there if this wise resolution is adopted by our federal counterparts at this time. May wisdom prevail,” said Stratton.

“This resolution, make no mistake, is not this Legislature trying to impose its will upon whether it be the federal delegation, county commissions, city council members, or anyone else. We are one voice, shoulder to shoulder with no daylight between. The voices of the elected officials of this state, of which we are one, expressing our opposition to this designation by executive order,” said Hughes.

The second resolution discussed Tuesday, HCR 12 – Concurrent Resolution Urging Federal Legislation to Reduce or Modify the Boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, sponsored by Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab), criticizes the way in which the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) was created.

Unlike HCR 11, though, HCR 12 doesn’t seek to erase the GSENM. Instead, lawmakers are requesting that Utah’s congressional delegation support legislation that either modifies or reduces the GSENM’s boundaries. The resolution says that boundary adjustments are essential to protect the “prosperity, health, safety, and welfare” of residents from Garfield and Kane counties. Furthermore, HCR 12 lists potential benefits from a change in boundaries: improved access to public lands, commerce, development and protection of natural resources, traditional recreational resource values, traditional cultural and historical values, agricultural livestock and forest products industries, and other activities vital to the custom, culture, and well-being of the area.

House Minority Leader Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City) charged that Utahns overwhelmingly wish to keep Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears intact. “The will of the people of the state of Utah is far different than the unanimous, nonsupport of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears by our congressional delegation. Those individuals who claim to represent us are not doing so,” said King.

A Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll found that the issue amongst Utahns is far more divisive, in spite of nearly unanimous legislative opposition to both monuments. When asked whether they approved or disapproved of the Bears Ears designation, 52 percent disapprove and 34 percent approve while 15 percent don’t know. 51 percent support legal, legislative, and/or executive action to overturn the designation, while 37 percent are opposed. 12 percent don’t know. The poll also found that 55 percent support a lawsuit against the federal government to return public lands to state control, while 41 percent are opposed. 5 percent don’t know.

“I think the monument boundaries can be modified with good common sense, the resources protected. We have the mighty five in Southern Utah, and it has brought a lot of tourism, jobs, and a lot of those kinds of things, but we need to take a look at what we’re doing,” said Representative Carl Albrecht (Republican – Richfield). “Do we want to lock up everything south of I-70? That’s the road we’re on.”

“Let us live our life in peace. I don’t want any more federal agents coming into my area. I want to see my county sheriff in my area. I want to know who’s there in law enforcement. I want to access the roads that my great-grandfather accessed and that my wife’s grandfather accessed, and I want to be able to have my children come back and live in this area and have an opportunity,” said Noel.

HCR 11 passed on a 60-14 vote, with all Democrats and Representative Bruce Cutler (Republican – Murray) voting in opposition. House Democrats also predictably voted against HCR 12, which advanced on a 61-13 party-line vote. Both pieces of legislation now head to the Senate for their consideration.

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