On Friday, HCR 11 – Concurrent Resolution Urging the President to Rescind the Bears Ears National Monument went to its final floor debate in the Senate after breezing through the House, due in no small part from the endorsement of the leadership of the House Speaker, Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper).
The resolution is Utah’s attempt to increase the state’s visibility on the entire topic of “state’s rights,” especially when it comes to federal lands. Since Utah’s boundaries include more than 20 million acres of public lands, the idea of Washington, D.C. telling the Beehive State what it can and cannot do with the land inside it’s boundaries is particularly galling; indeed, almost 70 percent of Utah has never been under state’s control.
In the fiercely independent West, traditional values are entrenched like the ruts from ancestral wagon wheels on dirt roads, many forged before the state actually came to be. Add to this general resentment of east-coast bureaucrats telling westerners what they can and cannot do, and the stage is set for a showdown.
Utah’s Senate Approval
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, (Republican – Sandy) sponsored the bill in the upper chamber, and in his presentation, he offered his take on why it was so important that Utah find a way to have the National Monument designation rescinded.
Referring to Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act, Niederhauser centered his pitch on the outrageous notion that one man, in Washington, D.C., could have so much power as to designate an area roughly the size of Rhode Island as off-limits to the interest of those who actually live in the area. In the months and years leading up to President Obama’s use of Antiquities Act to protect another special place and its diverse cultural, biological, geological and archeological contents, many stakeholders came to express their interests.
The resulting movement became yet another Sagebrush Rebellion of sorts, and public monies began to be spent in support of advocacy groups like the American Lands Council operated in three states by Utah Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan). Utah’s congressional delegation was involved in developing the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), a land-use strategy headed by Congressional Natural Resources Committee Chairman, Rob Bishop (Republican). When Bishop announced the draft of the PLI at the Utah State Capitol mid-2016, no mention was made of the Native American, First Nation’s people and their interests. When asked about this, Bishop and his colleague Jason Chaffetz (Republican) denied that anyone or any group had been omitted in more than 1,200 meetings held to forge the legislative blueprint.
A Scandalous Tragedy in San Juan County
In 2009, some prominent citizens of San Juan County were involved in a scandalous raid by federal agents seeking to recover antiquities which had been looted and placed into private collections with some finding their way to a growing market, just as had occurred at Mesa Verde early in the 20th century. Rather than suffer the shame of his arrest and pending trial, a local physician who was known to collect and trade artifacts took his own life. In reality, as early as 2010, the native tribes were beginning to ask federal authorities that their sacred lands and troves of objects be protected in San Juan County, Utah.
Tensions only grew higher when, in 2014, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman organized an illegal ATV ride protest through Recapture Canyon east of Blanding via social media. In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management chose to close off parts of the canyon to such activities after it was discovered that unofficial trail construction damaged Native American archeological sites.
Off to the President
With these events as a policy backdrop, the debate over the use of public lands reached a fever pitch in the last months of President Obama’s presidency. Bishop’s PLI had received a lukewarm committee hearing in Washington and was deemed by insiders to be a non-starter when faced with opposition by tribal coalitions who’d registered their complaints that non-native politicians were ignoring them. That’s when they appealed to the Obama administration. When the designation was announced, many Utahns were offended by the idea that the President was golfing, leaving the correspondence to a courtesy phone call between Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who didn’t like the news. Making the situation worse, the Interior Department posted an internet notice on the newly created National Monument, the seventh in Utah, with an image of Arches National Park.
“That’s why congress should be involved in all of these decisions,” said Niederhauser after the Senate approved the resolution along party lines. “The Executive Orders issued over the last week, everybody is happy with those but are we happy with President Trump making those? I’m not happy with that. I may agree or disagree with him, but I think congress should be the one [entity] helping the President and being involved in those decisions,” concluded Niederhauser while meeting reporters in his office.
HCR11 was signed by Governor Herbert later the same day.