ST. GEORGE — A coalition of Native American nations are proposing the creation of a 1.9 million-acre national monument in southeastern Utah. The move has the potential to affect school trust land income, and members of Utah’s Congressional delegation have weighed in on the issue.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of five tribal nations, presented their proposal to the Obama Administration Oct. 15, according to a press statement. A copy of the proposal was also delivered to Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
Bishop and Chaffetz have been working on the Public Lands Initiative, which seeks to address federal land management in the Bears Ears and other regions of eastern Utah.
However, the tribes have been excluded in spite of efforts to have the Bears Ears proposal considered as part of the Public Lands Initiative, the tribes’ statement said.
In response to the proposal, members of Utah’s federal delegation released a statement, saying there are many Native Americans in Utah who oppose the monument. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz issued this joint statement:
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is an important stakeholder in the Public Lands Initiative. The Coalition represents many Native American voices that have an interest in how lands in San Juan County are managed.
While many Native Americans who live in Utah oppose the Coalition’s proposal, we welcome the input and recommendations nonetheless. Our offices have now received over 65 detailed proposals from various stakeholder groups regarding land management in eastern Utah. We remain committed to reviewing each proposal and producing a final PLI bill that is balanced and broadly supported.
The monument, as proposed, would not change the ownership of the land, the tribes’ statement said, instead the area would be collaboratively managed by the federal government and the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribes.
Tribes and agency officials would work together as equals to make joint decisions. As with any national monument, members of the public and key stakeholders would have ample opportunity to contribute to the development of plans and policies, the statement said.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was created in July 2015 to protect and preserve the Bears Ears region. The proposal is formally supported by an additional 19 tribes as well as the National Congress of American Indians, the statement said.
“This proposal originates from the heart of Indian Country,” Eric Descheenie said. Descheenie is co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and advisor to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. “By protecting these sacred ancestral lands we can take a very important step towards healing.”
The Bears Ears National Monument proposal is named for the Bears Ears buttes – two prominent landforms at the center of a landscape rich in antiquities, with more than 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites that are sacred to dozens of tribes, the statement said. However, the area is threatened by looting and destruction of the region’s structures, artwork, and gravesites; and oil, gas and potash extraction threaten the landscape.
“This destruction of our sacred sites – including the gravesites of our ancestors – deeply wounds us,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, councilwoman to the Ute Mountain Ute, said. “Bears Ears should have been protected long ago. It has been central to our creation and migration stories since time immemorial.”
The proposed monument would be open to all members of the public, the statement said.
School funding impact
Public education leaders are voicing concerns over the long-term impact of a national monument designation on classroom funding.
More than 157,000 acres of trust lands would be tied up within the boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears monument, according to the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
“Monument designations would inevitably capture hundreds of thousands of acres of school trust lands, rendering them undevelopable instead of providing revenue to directly support K-12 education as Congress intended,” said Tim Donaldson, School Children’s Trust director for the Utah State Board of Education. The board has independent oversight of the state’s efforts to generate revenue from school trust lands.
Iron County and Washington County school districts have received $19 million in school land trust funds, and $2.56 million this year alone, according to a press statement. Over the past decade, SITLA has generated $1.2 billion from Utah’s trust lands, helping to grow Utah’s permanent school fund to $2 billion. Interest and dividends from the fund have provided $310 million to Utah schools in that time.
“If conservation designations are made, they must be done in a way that holds schools harmless financially,” SITLA Director Kevin Carter said. “That might mean identifying lands of comparable value up front and providing for costs of exchanging those lands.”
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