ST. GEORGE – Congressman Chris Stewart is singing the same tune as his Washington colleagues and most of his constituency when it comes to the proposed designation of another national monument in Utah.
Located in San Juan County, Bears Ears is being considered by President Barack Obama as prime real estate for a 1.9 million-acre national monument. However, unlike former President Bill Clinton, Obama says he won’t even consider it without local input.
To show the federal government’s commitment to getting participation from the state, Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, visited southeastern Utah last month to hold a three-hour meeting focused on gathering feedback.
The meeting had more than 1,500 people in attendance reportedly lending to a heated discussion among those in the room.
Jewell was tasked with taking the information garnered from the meeting back to Washington, D.C.
Still, the effort falls short in Stewart’s eyes as he believes, like other Utah lawmakers, the president has already made up his mind and is just “going through the motions.”
During a recent interview exclusively with St. George News, Stewart discussed the proposed designation and his concerns. While Utahns are largely in opposition to the monument, he said he does not believe their opinion will matter.
“I think they’ve made the decision already,” Stewart said, “and they’re just going through the motions of coming out here to Utah and listening to folks.”
See video of our Chris Stewart interview top of this report.
Utah Policy reported last May on a poll that found only 17 percent of Utahns want Obama to declare the Bears Ears area in Southeastern Utah a national monument.
The poll, conducted by Utah-based public opinion pollster Dan Jones and Associates, was in stark contrast to one taken by an environmental activist group showing an overwhelming number of Utahns want to see Bears Ears protected under national monument status.
Several environmental groups also maintain the designation of the monument is largely supported by Native American groups of the Bears Ears area and within the state. Stewart, however, argues that is not true.
“… There’s some interest but there are also many who oppose it,” Stewart said. “Many of the tribal interests who support the Bears Ears (monument) live outside of the state.”
Stewart said if the president is sincere he will listen to local input and not create the monument.
The amendment, passed during a U.S. House Interior Appropriations Committee Mark Up and later the full House of Representatives, was written in anticipation of Obama’s actions to designate the monument, Stewart said. He added that while he is a strong supporter of preserving the country’s national treasures, he believes in local input.
Rep. Rob Bishop recently proposed legislation in a massive bill called the Public Lands Initiative that addresses the Bears Ears area and proposes an alternative to the monument.
Dubbed by many as the “Great Bargain,” the legislation has been in the making for three years before being unveiled last month.
“He’s been working on that (Public Lands Initiative) for more than three years,” Stewart said. “They (Bishop and congressional team) did a really good job of bringing together the various groups, some of them who opposed one another had very different views on what they hoped the outcome would be,” Stewart said. “Rob did a terrific job of bringing them together and really coming to an area of compromise.”
In the proposed legislation, Bishop proposes splitting 1.4 million acres of the Bears Ears region in two that would be managed as separate national conservation areas. The southern portion would be set aside for traditional Native American uses while the northern section would recognize existing outdoor recreation uses such as rock climbing in the Indian Creek corridor.
The bill is slated to be the subject of a formal hearing this month by the committee Bishop heads, the House Committee on Natural Resources. The committee is also planning a markup session on the bill in September where congressional members debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.
In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed and Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law the Transfer of Public Lands Act, House Bill 148 in that session. The law demands the federal government relinquish the public lands to state ownership. Similar legislation has been passed in neighboring states of Arizona and Nevada. It failed in Colorado.
Since then, Utah has discussed suing the federal government to force its hand to make the transfer and has set aside $4.5 million earmarked for that purpose.
In regards to the state’s action, Stewart said he is in favor of anything Utah can do to realize this objective. He added that he and his fellow colleagues in Washington largely leave the handling of this lawsuit to state leadership.
“It’s their (state leadership) decision,” Stewart said. “We don’t step into that conversation much because it’s a state decision and we trust them. But we think they should pursue that avenue as we pursue legislation from the federal side. I think both are probably necessary.”
Meanwhile, Stewart works from the nation’s capital to find ways through legislation to cede ownership of federal lands to the states. The recent formation of the Federal Lands Action Group is one of Stewart’s many efforts in this regard.
Stewart and Bishop launched the Group last April to develop a legislative framework to build on the work started by Utah, according to information on the Group’s website .
“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better,” Stewart said. “If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.”
“This group will explore legal and historical background in order to determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands to the rightful owners. We have assembled a strong team of lawmakers, and I look forward to formulating a plan that reminds the federal government it should leave the job of land management to those who know best.”
According to a press release issued last April from Bishop’s office, the group was created to cede ownership of federal lands to the state.
“This group will explore legal and historical background in order to determine the best congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners,” Bishop said in the release.
Opponents to the transfer argue the action would result in public lands being sold off to the highest bidder and put some of the nation’s most iconic and scenic landscapes at risk of being lost forever. They also dispute the idea that public access would be increased arguing that as more lands are privatized, the public would be cut off from these areas.
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