Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Obama’s Monument Designation at Bears Ears: ‘A Slap in the Face to the People of Utah’

Sally Jewell

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee unleashed a cannonade of criticism upon President Barack Obama Wednesday after the vacationing president designated the Bear Ears formation an national monument.

“The midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz about the area in southeastern Utah dominated by two large, iron-red buttes, carved out over the centuries by the Colorado River.

Tensions over the Bears Ears region have involved mineral interests, archaeologists and split American Indians between those looking to work in the local mining industry and nationalists, looking to score a victory.

The victory Obama gave them means that by presidential decree, The Bear Ears National Monument region will be administered by a commission the president also created made up of federal bureaucrats and local American Indians—cutting out completely the local, county and state governments from any decisions made regarding the monument.

The president said: “Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.”

Obama also designated an area in southern Nevada: “Gold Butte National Monument” in the same proclamation, which he claimed he was authorized to do by the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said he was pleased with the president’s decision.

“There was a time when our nations, American and Navajo, were at war with each other — when the U.S. Cavalry forcibly rounded up Navajo men, women, and children, and marched them at gunpoint to a foreign land hundreds of miles away,” he said.

“During this time, some of my Navajo ancestors successfully hid at a sacred place of prayer, shelter, and fortitude: the Bears Ears area of Utah,” he said. “This beautiful piece of land stretches for over a million acres of land across the southern edge of the state. Its ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, abundant rock art, countless cultural artifacts, winding creek beds, and expanses of desert land, contain the great history of my nation.”

Today, there are no residents in the area designated by the president.

“After years of painstaking negotiations with a diverse coalition, Utah had a comprehensive bipartisan solution on the table that would have protected the Bears Ears and provided a balanced solution,” Chaffetz said.

“Instead, the president’s midnight proclamation cherry picked provisions of the Public Lands Initiative and disregarded the economic development and multi-use provisions necessary for a balanced compromise,” he said.

“In reality, a win-win solution never really had a chance as the very threat of the Antiquities Act prevented a serious negotiation with the stakeholders of PLI – many of whom never wanted a compromise to begin with,” he said. “President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long-simmering conflict.”

The PLI is the Public Lands Initiative, led by Chaffetz and Rep. Robert W. Bishop (R.-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

At a March 2 hearing on Capitol Hill, Bishop told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell making the Bears Ears a national monument is a mistake.

“There is nobody in the Utah delegation in the Senate or the House who supports it,” he said.

“There is no one in the state administration who supports it. You can’t find a state legislator who represents that area who supports it. You can’t even find a commissioner who supports it.” Bishop added, “the only elected Navajo we have in the state, on the state or county level, is in that particular county and she is opposed to it. The chapters that live in that area are opposed to it,” Bishop said.

Chaffetz said he is counting on President-elect Donald J. Trump to undo Obama’s Bear Ears designation.

“We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to follow through on his commitment to repeal midnight regulations,” he said. “We will work to repeal this top-down decision and replace it with one that garners local support and creates a balanced, win-win solution.”

Chaffetz might have the support of president-elect, the man Trump picked to run the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R.-Mont.) has often voted with Democrats, when House Republicans have tried to transfer federal lands to local control. In July, Zinke resigned at a delegate to the Republican National Convention in a protest against the Republican Party’s platform that endorsed turning federal lands to the states.


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