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BEARS EARS, San Juan County — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stood in a circle surrounded by leaders of five Native American tribes, medicine men and women, their children and families and spoke of the importance of the land.
She knelt down to touch a handful of dirt and said, like them, she is in the "forever business" of preserving heritage, traditions and landscapes for generations yet to come.
"Everybody recognizes this area is special," said Jewell, in the middle of the Bears Ears meadows Friday. "There is nobody that I talk to that doesn't want to see these areas protected for us, but also for their children and grandchildren."
Jewell, on her third day of a grueling, three-day tour through southeastern Utah, spoke candidly with Native American elders and leaders pushing for a 1.9 million acre monument designation for the Bears Ears region.
Between posing for pictures and accepting handwritten notes from children asking for monument protections, she said her overwhelming impression after two days on the ground was a blend of amazement, wonder and shock at what San Juan County's landscape has to offer.
"What I have seen on this trip and especially here is this incredible treasure trove of cultural resources" that she said stretched far beyond her expectations. "It's beyond imagination. I am also shocked at the lack of protection for many of these assets."
Leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition hosted Jewell in a grassy meadow atop the Bears Ears buttes at an elevation eclipsing 9,000 feet. Native Americans engaged in tribal song, dance and language and served a Hopi dinner.
She ventured into a teepee and, later, accompanied by top Interior Department officials such as the head of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, and the Bureau of Land Management's national director, Neal Kornze, they listened patiently as Native Americans pressed their cause.
The conversations marked the second day of face to face, spontaneous interaction that Jewell's been having with Native Americans over the controversial Bears Ears region. At issue is whether there should be a monument designation by President Barack Obama or if land protections should come through Congress with legislation sponsored by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz.
"That is what all of this is about, listening to each of you," she said. "It has been several days of intense listening and several days of getting out in these incredible landscapes and feeling the power that exists within them."
She told the Native American monument supporters that what she had heard Thursday in a Monticello meeting with tribal members opposed to the designation was not all that dissimilar from what she was hearing from them.
"They have so much in common in what I hear from you that I hope there will be a coming together," she said. "There is nothing like listening and touching and hearing the different points of view and the similar points of view."
The inter-tribal coalition representing the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute tribes officially formed a year ago after leaders said they became frustrated with the public lands initiative process being shepherded by Bishop.
Dubbed the "Grand Bargain," Bishop's bill seeks to invoke land management policies for 18 million acres in eastern Utah, including the contentious Bears Ears region in San Juan County.
Those tribal leaders in the coalition, who walked away from talks with Bishop last December, still disapprove of the latest version of Bears Ears protections contained within his bill released Thursday.
Kenneth Maryboy said it doesn't go far enough to protect the land from oil and gas development, potash mining or other mineral leasing.
While officials with the Monticello District of the Manti La Sal National Forest — where Bears Ears Buttes are located — said there has been no oil or gas leases in the area for the last 15 to 20 years, there has been a permit issued to an uranium mining company for exploratory drills. While the permit has been granted, there's been no activity, likely due to unfavorable market conditions.
Bishop's bill would place 1.4 million acres into two national conservation areas and a wilderness area — which come with land restrictions — but the coalition wants monument protections.
Several San Juan County Native Americans say the monument push is being driven by tribes from out of state who don't live in the area and therefore won't suffer the consequences of any monument restrictions such as possible prohibitions on wood gathering or the collection of native herbs and plants.
Jewell stressed both Thursday and Friday those fears are unfounded.
"The traditional activities that have gone on in these lands since time and memorial will continue," she said.
Carlton Bowekaty, a Zuni tribal councilman from New Mexico and a three-tour veteran of the Iraqi war, said the land at Bears Ears provides a way for him to heal and connect with ancestors.
He added that the co-management structure proposed by the coalition offers a unique, and unprecedented opportunity for Native Americans to have a real voice at the management table of a monument.
While the Zuni has worked in cooperation with the Forest Service and National Park Service in a number of agreements on the land, this would be different, he said.
"We want to be there from the beginning," he said. "We don't want to be an afterthought."
Contributing: Alex Cabrero