A newly unveiled advisory committee that will help make management decisions for a downsized national monument in southern Utah has become the latest flashpoint in a long-running debate over lands considered sacred to Native Americans as monument supporters cry foul about being left off the panel.
The selections for the 15-person Bears Ears National Monument panel posted online Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management reveal a few people who seem to strike a middle ground, but nobody who was an outspoken proponent of the monument created by President Barack Obama in December 2016 to help preserve ancient cliff dwellings and an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites.
In contrast, the committee includes several people who were critics of Obama’s designation and cheered President Donald Trump’s December 2017 decision to scale it back by about 85 percent to make it a 315 square mile-monument (816 sq. kilometers) in a move Trump said was done to reverse federal overreach. They include San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, ranchers Zeb Dalton and Gail Johnson, resident Jami Bayles and the two people selected for tribal spots on the committee: Ryan Benally and Alfred Ben. They are the only Native Americans on the committee.
Many monument supporters applied but weren’t chosen, said Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa environmental group, and Gavin Noyes, executive director of Utah Dine Bikeyah, a tribal group that pushed for Obama’s designation.
“Many of the people seem to be involved for political purposes, and not their expertise,” Ewing said.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kimberly Finch said in a statement that the committee members were chosen by the Department of the Interior after a careful review of a pool of 58 applications to “reflect a wide variety expertise, experiences, and interests regarding public land management and the resources within the Bears Ears National Monument.”
Each spot was earmarked for a certain group, such as paleontology, private landowners, cattle grazing, recreation, conservation and archaeology. The members were given one, two and three year-terms to stagger when they will be replaced. The committee is expected to meet for the first time this summer.
Several committee members defended the selections, while making clear they aren’t responsible for overall composition.
“I think it’s a good, diverse group,” said Dalton, a rancher who filled the private landowner spot.
The conservation representative, Miles Moretti, CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, said he wants to help find areas of consensus about lands he grew to love while he spent countless hours in the 1980s horseback riding doing wildlife surveys for the Utah Division of Wildlife.
“I’m not coming with an agenda,” Moretti said.
Ben, a vice president for the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, called it an honor to be on the panel and speak for his ancestors. He was among Native Americans who opposed the monument designation because he felt it would add unnecessary restrictions on sacred lands.
“I’m a community leader, and I know how the grassroots people think,” Ben said.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that advocated for the monument didn’t nominate anyone for the two tribal spots as part of its continued protest of the downsizing of the monument, coalition co-chair Carleton Bowekaty said. They have repeatedly called for the BLM to halt the planning process because of their pending lawsuits challenging the legality of Trump’s decision.
Ben said the coalition has no place on this new advisory committee because they already have their own advisory panel.
That separate six-person commission was created by Obama and kept by Trump, who revised it to include a spot for a county commissioner from San Juan County, Utah. The coalition —which includes the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation — is not participating in the commission as part of its protest of the shrinkage.
Adams, the county commissioner, said he has a hard time empathizing about the lack of tribal representation on the new panel because the coalition didn’t nominate anyone.
The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the committee’s selections on Tuesday.
The paleontologist on the committee, Brigham Young University’s Brooks Britt, said he hopes to stake out middle ground on the committee. “Sometimes you can have so much protection that you can’t do science anymore. I think you have to find the sweet spot,” he said.q