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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's congressional delegation, Gov. Gary Herbert and some Navajo residents from San Juan County made a direct plea to President Barack Obama on Wednesday to refrain from designating the Bears Ears region a national monument.
The press conference Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol was live-streamed on Sen. Mike Lee's Facebook page, generating hundreds of simultaneous comments as monument opponents urged that the southeastern Utah region be left alone by the president.
"Native Americans have given up enough of their ancestral lands for national monuments," said Susie Philemon. "President Obama, we the local native residents of San Juan County, Utah, have managed to protect this enchanted place and will continue to do so. Please do not take this land from us. … Please don’t break more promises … not again."
Philemon paused with emotion in her direct appeal and spoke of the sacred nature of the rugged country to Native Americans.
"President Obama, if you take this sacred place from us and make it a national monument, you are not only taking the center stone but you are also taking a sacred homeland from us. It puts a heavy burden on our hearts to think it will be a decision of one person to forever deprive us from having a physical connection to our spiritual sites," she said.
A reporter at the press conference asked if Utah's political leaders believe the ink is already drying on the presidential proclamation and if their pleas are too little, too late.
"I don't think it is inevitable," Herbert said. "That is why we are here."
Herbert is to meet with the Bureau of Land Management's national director, Neil Kornze, on Thursday and emphasized that if the federal government believes the area needs greater protections, the agency should respond with stepped up management in lieu of a unilateral decision.
"If you really care about protections, there are ways to do it with the Bureau of Land Management," he said.
At the same time the conference was unfolding in Washington, D.C., proponents of the monument designation met at the Utah Capitol to offer a differing view and renew their push for a new national monument spanning 1.9 million acres.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has pushed the Obama administration hard to create the monument, emphasizing the support of five major tribes with ancestral ties to the land, 30 tribal governments throughout the Southwest and the endorsement of the National Congress of American Indians.
Albert Holiday, vice president of the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation, said support for a new monument in Bears Ears is nearly unanimous in Monument Valley.
"We use the area and want to honor our deep connections to these lands while ensuring continued access for traditional uses, such as herb collection, hunting and firewood gathering," he said in a statement.
But Danielle Shirley, a Navajo born in Blanding, spoke at the D.C. rally and said a Bears Ears monument push does not have the support of the majority of local Native Americans who live in or around the area.
She added that the support that has been generated for the monument was incubated by outsiders.
"These environmental groups and corporations have partnered with out of state tribes deciding to ignore the struggles of those in the poorest county in Utah. These groups do not understand how sacred the Bears Ears are to the locals," she said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he believes a local solution can be arrived at to protect the Bears Ears region either through a massive public lands bill sponsored by two of his Republican colleagues from Utah or through some other means.
"Frankly, I hope the administration backs off. They should back off and work with us," he said, adding that he believes there is reason to hope the Obama administration might choose that path.
"I know that deep down (Interior Secretary Sally Jewell) hopes we don't have to go to a monument," he said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, the chief architect of the Public Lands Initiative proposing to set up national conservation areas of 1.4 million acres in the region, said the better and only assured way to instill protections the tribes want is legislatively.
"The federal government cannot deliver," he said. "They do not have the legal authority to do what they say they will do. You are still subject to the whims of future land managers. We are proposing to do it the right way."
The Navajo tribal members in Washington, D.C., delivered an "opposition packet" to Jewell's office earlier in the day, and following the press conference the entire congressional delegation and Herbert released a joint statement opposing the monument.
The Native American advocacy organization, Utah Dine' Bikeyah, also put out a release detailing the level of support for the Bears Ears monument and rejection of Bishop's Public Lands Initiative.
During his tenure in office, Obama has declared 27 national monuments of more than half a million acres. The latest was last week off the East Coast, the area's first ever national marine monument.
Lee said Wednesday the Bears Ears designation would be to the detriment of Native Americans who don't want the sacred lands controlled by a "distant, cold government operating thousands of miles away."