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McKnight: Honoring Bears Ears and our public lands commitment

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Friday, April 6, 2018 5:17 PM
Clint McKnight

As the court cases to determine the legality of downsizing Bears Ears National Monument continue, the Bureau of Land Management is still accepting comments on the Resource Management Plans being hastily developed.

The deadline for comments is April 11, and comments can be submitted to: blm_ut_monticello_monuments@blm.gov.

Late last month, I attended the Bears Ears public scoping meetings held in Monticello and Bluff, and wanted to offer a few personal observations for what they may be worth.

The planning process is in the first of several stages, and there will be additional opportunities to comment on proposed alternatives and to contest decisions as the process plays out. BLM expects to complete this usually lengthy process within a year! The management plan/Environmental Impact Statement developed for the original Bears Ears monument remains in effect until this new one is completed.

We were told that BLM anticipates the primary resource issue for the Shash Jáa Unit will be Cultural Resources, and for the Indian Creek Unit, Recreation. When I asked BLM Project Lead Tyler Ashcroft what role public scoping feedback would play in developing management alternatives, he assured me that public input would be the determining factor. While public lands advocates were shamelessly shut out of the decision to eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase/Escalante, I’m encouraged to believe that at this point our input can have a positive effect.

Most of the BLM employees we spoke with were helpful and interested in our views on issues such as limiting developed recreation facilities and motorized travel, less so on the matter of grazing damage to ecologically-sensitive areas and tribal interests, The Cultural Resources Specialist denied that the five tribes, whose cooperation led to Bears Ears National Monument in the first place, were betrayed when their agreement with the U.S. government was broken by President Trump’s executive order. “There was no official agreement,” said the BLM staff person, “just a proclamation.” I assured him that the distinction was meaningless to native people with whom I spoke about Bears Ears.

Accordingly, there were very few Native Americans at either meeting. Lots of ranchers in Blanding, and conservationists in Bluff. The atmosphere at each was easy and sociable, at least among the separate demographics. BLM was wise to hold the meetings in an informal open house format.

Currently, there are no oil and gas leases or mineral leases within either of the units or the original Bears Ears boundary. All current interest in mineral development appears to be on lands east of the original monument boundary. Hopefully, the state of Utah will want to exchange out their lands within the units, and even within the original boundary, for lands with more mineral potential to the east.

There’s no avoiding the fact that shrinking Bears Ears National Monument into tiny, non-contiguous parcels is devastating to the essential wild qualities of this region – a quiet soundscape with plentiful opportunity for spiritual contemplation, vast, thrilling viewsheds of open space and wild horizons and the priceless dark skies that reveal not only the stars but the stars between the stars, and other celestial phenomena seldom seen in our blinded-by-the-light society.

It’s easy to be discouraged by the greedy, short-sighted people at the top of the public resources decision-making process. But I remain hopeful that actively participating in the Bears Ears management planning process can contribute to ecological and cultural justice. I plan to stay informed and involved every step of the way. Because that’s how we honor our values and our commitment to public lands.

That’s how we honor Bears Ears.

Clint McKnight of Durango is a former national park ranger, current bookseller and illustrator. Reach him at cmck3240@gmail.com and mcknightink.com.

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