ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The new interior secretary is keeping a promise to travel to the rural West and talk to people who are concerned about large national monuments that protect federal public land. Ryan Zinke's first stop is the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. It's on land considered sacred to Native Americans. We're going to spend some time there now to learn why local opposition to it is so fierce. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A lot of the anger over federal public land in rural Utah today can be traced back to a windy, gray day in Arizona in September of 1996.
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BILL CLINTON: On this remarkable site, God's handiwork is everywhere in the natural beauty of the Escalante Canyons and in the...
SIEGLER: This is President Bill Clinton designating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah at a ceremony 150 miles away at the Grand Canyon.
SIEGLER: But Clinton didn't even set foot in Utah that day. The planning for the monument was largely done in secret, and state leaders got virtually no heads up that it was coming. Twenty-one years later, mistrust toward the federal government persists in the tight-knit, mostly Mormon town of Blanding, Utah. Folks can't help but draw a parallel to how the sweeping Bears Ears monument ended up in their backyard.
LAURA O'DONNELL: I don't understand how it would protect the land when you're inviting thousands of footprints in that - to people that it was unknown before. I mean they didn't - had no clue about this area.
SIEGLER: At Blanding's visitor center, Laura O'Donnell is uncomfortable that her home is suddenly the flashpoint in the environmental movement.
O'DONNELL: I like it the way it is. We've got our farmers, our ranchers. We've got the largest school district right here in Blanding - no.
SIEGLER: This is how deep the opposition runs - that even the woman working the tourist center doesn't want a new monument that could attract more tourists. This latest battle in sagebrush country goes a lot further than the usual anxieties about a new monument restricting mining or other development. Longtime locals like Jami Bayles put it this way. People were offended when the government came in and declared that Bears Ears is under threat.
JAMI BAYLES: We keep that place pristine. We keep it clean. We keep - you know, we check on it all the time. And so I guess my argument is, OK, yeah, it belongs to everybody, but not everybody has been taking care of it.
SIEGLER: Bayles organized her neighbors into a group called San Juan Stewards. From her office at a small college, you can see the twin Bears Ears buttes out on the vast Cedar Mesa west of town. While not as visually dramatic as the famous national parks nearby, the area is dense with cliff dwellings and ancient artifacts, and the protected monument is huge - 1.3 million acres.
BAYLES: Monuments should be an honor to an area, and we feel like this one is nothing but a punishment.
SIEGLER: Bayles says the monument is being pushed by extreme out-of-state environmentalists. Now, there are deep pockets behind the protect Bears Ears campaign - Hollywood actors, outdoor retail giants like Patagonia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).
SIEGLER: But San Juan County is 50 percent Native American. And 30 miles down the road on the Navajo reservation, tribal leaders say it's a lie for people in Blanding to argue that the monument is being pushed on them from the outside.
KENNETH MARYBOY: For them to be here for 130 years, they should at least understand the Native Americans now.
SIEGLER: Kenneth Maryboy, a chapter president for the Navajo Nation, says tribes around the Four Corners welcomed the outside money and help because they didn't have a voice before. Maryboy was part of the original talks to protect Bears Ears with Utah's congressional delegation that began nearly a decade ago. They broke down last year.
MARYBOY: Our gripe and our fight is to preserve what's there - the Native American artifacts, the antiquities and all the shrines and the ruins.
SIEGLER: Maryboy says bringing national monument status to Bears Ears will help protect those antiquities from vandalism. He says it could also guard against looting, a historical problem here.
MARYBOY: The San Juan County good old boys don't want to see this happen. They adamantly, openly said, this is our land; the damn Navajos need to go back to the reservation.
SIEGLER: There is a lot at stake ahead of Secretary Zinke's visit. Tribes point to a history of broken promises. And if the Trump administration moves to abolish Bears Ears, you could see this turning into the next Standing Rock protest. Or on the other side, if the monument stays as is, do the anti-government militias show up?
Back near Blanding, I met Ferd Johnson for a tour of some of this area's famous rugged canyon country. We're riding ATVs. Ferd's retired, but he's long guided tourists in and out of what's now the monument.
FERD JOHNSON: The Bears Ears - that's a beauty out there. It's - it is really nice.
SIEGLER: Johnson has a compromise. He says, why not just shrink the monument and just protect the cliff dwellings and the artifacts themselves?
JOHNSON: All these environmentalists, these Navajos, Hopis and the other Indians didn't even know where the Bears Ears was, and they'd still come and ask, where is it? (Laughter) Why is it so sacred if they don't even know where it is?
SIEGLER: The tribes dispute this. Some have already signaled they'll sue if after Secretary Zinke's Utah trip the administration moves to rescind any or all of Bears Ears. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, in southeast Utah.
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