San Juan County is now the epicenter of a brutal battle over public lands—the outcome of which will have long-lasting consequences, not only for Utah but for the entire nation.
San Juan County alone accounts for nearly ten percent of all land in Utah.
Yet Utahns have very little say in what actually goes on there. That’s because the federal government administers the vast majority of San Juan County.
This means that, for years, my constituents, who depend on the land’s resources, have been at the mercy of out-of-touch bureaucrats who have little knowledge or personal connection to the land.
President Obama only made matters worse when he spurned the men and women of San Juan County by declaring the Bears Ears National Monument last December. In doing so, he defied the will of the state legislature, the Governor, and the entire Utah Congressional delegation. President Obama’s midnight monument designation imposed even greater land-use restrictions on a region that is already predominantly controlled by the federal government.
As evidence of his disdain, President Obama issued this declaration with no open debate, no public hearing, and no vote in Congress. Utahns are now suffering the consequences of his recklessness.
When I visited the Bears Ears region last week, I met with small business owners and local officials who lamented the fact that the Obama administration never even gave them the courtesy of a simple phone call.
I wish to be clear: in opposing the Bears Ears monument designation, I am in no way opposing the protection of lands that need to be protected. Indeed, there are many cultural sites in San Juan County that deserve special care, and I am committed to working with the President and with Congress to preserve these sacred sites.
But I believe it is both unlawful and undemocratic for any President to seize millions upon millions of acres of land through the Antiquities Act — a law that was meant to give the President only narrow authority to designate special landmarks, such as a unique natural arch or the site of old cliff dwellings.
We desperately need a more sensible approach to protecting public lands—an approach that adheres more closely to the original intent of the Antiquities Act.
In the case of Bears Ears, President Obama cited his authority under the Antiquities Act to lock away an entire quarter of San Juan County—an action that undermines local autonomy and clearly violates the spirit of the law.
In my view, land-use decisions should not be decreed by executive fiat; they should be made only through a collaborative process that involves those who actually live on the land and know how to manage it. For example, had President Obama worked with rather than around Congress to protect public lands, Utah’s schoolchildren would be better off today.
That’s because there are more than 100,000 acres of school trust land that lie within the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears Monument. The land is a significant source of revenue for schools across our state, providing children with the instruction and resources they need to succeed well into adulthood.
Mr. President, I wish to emphasize again that I am fully committed to protecting the vast stretches of red rock, desert, and rolling prairie that dot our Western landscape. But the Antiquities Act is simply not the means to that end. Monumental land-use decisions affecting thousands of westerners should be made by the men and women on the ground and their duly elected representatives—not just the President and his advisers.
Congress—not the President alone—should have a say in decisions that restrict access to millions of acres of federally owned land. In making such decisions, the voice of the people is paramount.
That’s why last week I visited the people of San Juan County. There, I spoke with Native Americans who rely upon this land and its resources for their very livelihood.
I met with members of the San Juan County School District who depend on the school trust lands to keep their classrooms lit and their schools up and running. And I met with members of the San Juan County Commission who are dealing firsthand with the negative consequences of the Bears Ears designation.
I traveled to San Juan County to listen to the people who feel abandoned by their own government.
With the vast majority of the land owned and operated by the federal government, the fate of San Juan County rests almost entirely with Beltway bureaucrats making politically motivated decisions more than two thousand miles away. The families of southern Utah should not be at the mercy of a federal bureaucracy so completely out of touch with the Western way of life.
Enough is enough. Under the Constitution, Congress has the sole authority to manage public lands. The only reason the executive branch has any say in the management of federal lands is because Congress granted the President limited authority to participate in this process.
The mandate of multiple-use was meant to preserve the ability of areas like San Juan County to live and grow, even when inundated with federally owned public lands. But President Obama betrayed this mandate through his Bears Ears designation when he declared much more than the smallest acreage possible as required by the Antiquities Act.
When I spoke with the leadership of the San Juan County School District, they told me how prosperous the County had been when they were able to strike a balance with multiple land use. But the county’s schools have been strapped for cash ever since the Bears Ears Monument designation rendered these lands useless.
After speaking with school officials, we then met with local County commissioners and Navajo from San Juan County and drove together into the heart of Bears Ears. At Bears Ears Meadow, we discussed how the monument could be altered so that the lands that deserve protection can remain protected but in a way that’s consistent with the language of the Antiquities Act.
Mr. President, I believe there will be changes made to Bears Ears. These beautiful lands deserve protection, but so, too, do the people of San Juan County. They should not be trampled on by their own government. As long as I’m a United States Senator, I will not stop fighting to make sure that Utahns have a voice in the management of public lands.