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SALT LAKE CITY — Fed up with what it says are constant blown deadlines and not being taken seriously, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition said it will pursue a new monument designation with the Obama administration and is bowing out of discussions on the Public Lands Initiative process.
The public lands bill — which has yet to be unveiled by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah — called for setting up a National Conservation Area to protect the Bears Ears Butte area in San Juan County, but the coalition said it has yet to see a definitive proposal.
"The promised draft (Public Lands Initiative) was never delivered," said a letter sent Thursday to Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "All of this is consistent with the PLI's repeated failures to meet deadlines. Our five sovereign tribal nations, and our carefully drafted comprehensive proposal, deserve far more than that."
Leaders of the coalition, meanwhile, say they have been to Washington, D.C., eight times to meet with members of the Utah delegation, detailing their proposal for a monument designation to protect 1.9 million acres in the Bears Ears area, which they consider a sacred place of healing. The nations in the coalition are the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni.
"At each of those meetings we made extensive statements complete with maps and a summary of the proposal. At all of these meetings, both in the field and in Washington, D.C., we asked for comments on our proposal. … It was to no avail."
The coalition said its representatives were treated in a "polite and friendly" way, but no substantive comments — either negative or positive — were made by the delegation or their staff on the Bears Ears proposal.
Bishop has insisted that such a sweeping proposal for a large monument designation would be the worst thing that could happen to the area, cutting off access by the tribes and everyone else. Instead, he has pushed to institute protections in his public lands bill, which is still being crafted and has been met with delays.
On Thursday, he dismissed the complaints of the coalition and said its members do not represent the desire of local Native Americans in San Juan County who would be impacted by the proposal.
"The Native Americans who live in Utah and who would be most impacted by a national monument do not support the proposal of this group. One of our efforts has been to reconcile this proposal with what Utah Navajos want, and a monument is not the solution," he said in a prepared statement.
"A structured conservation area would allow Native Americans who live in the area to use this land, and have the ability to maintain their traditional activities with the least amount of federal interference. It is clear this self-appointed coalition has an agenda that we need to reconcile with the wishes of those who actually call Utah home."
The coalition, however, said it is frustrated and angry over Bishop's broken promises on legislation they have yet to see in a process they said has left them disenfranchised.
Alfred Lomahquahu and Eric Descheenie, coalition co-chairmen, said they were promised a look at Bishop's draft bill as early as November so they could compare the two proposals and determine the next steps forward.
At a Nov. 30 meeting of both sides — when it was clear the deadline would be missed — the coalition said it was promised a draft of the legislation — at the latest — in a meeting set for Dec. 30.
The meeting, the coalition said, was canceled by Chaffetz's representatives, leading coalition members to instead discuss their options and experience with the Public Lands Initiative process.
"We have come to the conclusion that we have no choice but to discontinue these discussions," the letter said. "Our strenuous efforts to participate in the (Public Lands Initiative) process, and related proceedings before that over the course of the past six years, have been consistently stonewalled. We have never been taken seriously."
But some critics of the coalition's Bears Ears proposal say it is meant to hijack Bishop's public lands bill and notably is designed to upend any of the concessions reached in San Juan County.
Under Bishop's bill, which he concedes has taken far longer to construct than he anticipated — land uses for some 18 million acres in the eastern half of Utah would be designated or carved out in a landscape style approach to zoning. The idea behind the public lands bill is to forge a coalition of support from county leaders, outdoor industry representatives, environmental groups, the grazing community and extractive industries on what land is best suited for what use, and settle contentious disputes among the land's users.
His bill, in addition to protecting high-value recreation areas and designating new wilderness areas, calls for transforming and improving Dinosaur National Monument into national park status and creating a new national monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
The process to arrive at a draft has been tedious, involving meetings among thousands of stakeholders and dozens of road trips to eke out a compromise that Bishop has promised will be "grand" but ultimately will leave everyone getting something, but not everything.
The coalition has complained that the San Juan County process to arrive at land use designations cut them out and was manipulated to eliminate the coalition's Bears Ears proposal. That, coupled with the Utah delegation's attitude, now has them pinning their hopes on President Barack Obama.
"We don't feel we can wait any longer before engaging with the Obama administration concerning our proposal in the hope they will advance our proposal via the Antiquities Act," the letter said.
San Juan County officials have insisted that their land use proposal represents the majority of Native Americans who live there. Email: email@example.com Twitter: amyjoi16