BLUFF, Utah (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell heard emotional statements Saturday from both sides of a divisive proposal to create a national monument at a sacred Native American site.
Jewell’s 3 ½-hour meeting in the town of Bluff capped off a four-day research trip to the state as a coalition of tribes urges President Barack Obama to turn 1.9 million acres around the twin Bears Ears buttes into a national monument.
The tribes and environmental groups say the area needs strong protections from threats of looting and damage from off-highway vehicles.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told Jewell and other Interior Department officials at the meeting that preserving the site is important to protecting Native American culture and history, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
“Your action will be one that will be remembered by our people for centuries,” he said.
Opponents, mainly Republicans and local Utah officials, argue the monument proposal is overly broad and could close off access to the land for development, including oil and gas development, and recreation. Instead, they’re backing legislation from U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz that would have Congress designate 1.4 million acres around Bears Ears as a conservation area.
Notah Tahy, a Navajo man from Blanding who held a sign at the meeting reading “No to a national monument,” said he fears that traditional activities like gathering wood and hunting will be restricted.
San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally said the proposal has only sown discord between local Native Americans. “We have known since 500 years ago and 200 years ago of broken promises and broken treaties,” Benally said.
Conservation groups and tribal officials say the Bishop and Chaffetz bill doesn’t go far enough to protect the area. Jewell said she was disappointed that it had taken so long for the congressmen to come up with the proposal.
The debate has even attracted the attention of actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, who has advocated on his social media accounts for a monument, and major outdoor recreation retailers Patagonia and Black Diamond, who have urged support for the proposal.
The U.S. Interior Department says Jewell’s visit doesn’t mean a monument decision is imminent.
Jewell said this week that she’s in Utah to listen and there’s no draft ready for any monument declaration.