Utahns debate national monument changes in pair of packed hearings

SALT LAKE CITY -- A heated debate broke out on Utah's Capitol Hill Thursday, and it nearly ended in uproar over whether to ask the president to dissolve the Bears Ears National Monument designation. It wasn’t the only national monument senators looked at on Thursday, either.

More than 120 people filled a Senate building room, and the crowd leaked out into the hallway to hear discussion of and give comment on HCR011: Concurrent Resolution Urging the President to Rescind the Bears Ears National Monument Designation.

Former President Obama signed the designation right before he left office, and the resolution seeks to undo it.

"The people of San Juan County do not want a National Monument," said Matt Anderson with the Sutherland Institute.

He said their polls show most people in that county and the state of Utah do not support the designation. Some, like Anderson, sided with the resolution, and said it’ll negatively affect the economy in that area and that there are other ways to protect the land.

"When these monuments are being proposed, I would really like to see a process," said Uinta County Commissioner Mike McKee, adding that the process should include leaders on the state and local level.

But most who showed up Thursday spoke strongly against the resolution, saying the 1.9 million acres needs the national monument title and it should not be undone.

"This is federal land, this is not San Juan County's land," said Salt Lake City resident Suzanne, who also said that this land belongs to the whole country.

"The land itself is essential to our culture and our people," said Cynthia Wilson, representing Utah Dine Bikeyah.

She said this is the first time that Native American voices have been heard, and that tribal elders want the national monument to remain.

At one point, Sen. Margaret Dayton, a Republican representing Orem, abruptly shut off public comment following the room’s applause for one person’s comment in opposition to the resolution.

She said outbursts were not allowed, and after a woman who was queued up to give public comment tried to speak, Sen. Dayton cut her off, leading to crowd backlash.

“Let us speak!” Someone yelled, as the disgruntled group expressed anger.

A number group of people swiftly stood up and stormed out of the room after threats they would be kicked out.

Just before this hearing, in the room next door, a different group of senators looked at pushing for changes to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

"Today it doesn't really meet challenges and the needs of the individual state," said Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, as he presented HCR012: Concurrent Resolution Urging Federal Legislation to Reduce or Modify the Boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Those for the resolution said the designation has caused nothing but economic problems.

Leland Pollock, Garfield County Commissioner, said they’ve seen a dramatic drop in school enrollment—from 140 grade 7-12 children in 1996 to 51 last year.

"It's been a bad thing,” he said, of the national monument.

He said making boundary changes would still keep important areas of Grand Staircase-Escalante protected.

“We're not doing anything to hurt tourism,” he said. “In fact, tourism is going to increase in some of these areas."

But others said, if anything, the national monument title has boosted the economy in the area.

Noel Poe, volunteer president for the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners board of directors, said the economy in Escalante, Boulder and Kanab are on the rise with new hotels, vacation rentals, restaurants and businesses.

Others who spoke said the designation’s importance boils down to preserving what they call a place focused on solitude and getting away from overcrowded national parks nearby.

"We are very lucky to have inherited Escalante. For me, it's always been a national monument,” said local resident Valerie. “It's always been a very positive thing for me."

In the end, senators in both hearings voted in favor of the two resolutions.

At the Bears Ears hearing, Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, said he was offended by the federal government stepping in and telling the state how to run the area.

He indicated that he wanted the state to call the shots on preservation instead.

"Perhaps we can't get everyone--in fact I doubt we can get anyone to [be] completely happy with this--but I hope we can preserve some of those sacred Indian lands," he said.

In a Thursday press conference, Governor Gary Herbert said if the Bears Ears resolution makes it to his desk, he will sign it.