In less than two months, Obama will be replaced in Washington, DC by Donald Trump. What he does between now and January 21, 2017 could have a significant impact on San Juan County.
It has been four months since Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell led a delegation of federal officials to the area to investigate the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.
A coalition of environmental groups and Native American tribes joined together to seek the designation of a 1.9 million acre national monument.
The massive monument proposal includes approximately 38 percent of the total landmass of San Juan County, with large sections of private, state, BLM and Forest Service land included.
The proposal was met with a mixed response at a public meeting hosted by Jewell in Bluff. Large groups of environmental and tribal supporters attended the meeting, including a large number of people from outside of San Juan County.
Local residents spoke in favor of and opposed to the designation, leaving the impression to many observers that local residents were split on the proposal.
In response, a group of local residents banded together in a grassroots effort to fight the proposal.
Efforts in the community, in the media, with elected officials and on the bumpers of local cars have combined to build awareness of the significant local opposition to the monument.
While there are still voices in favor of the proposal, including local residents who serve on the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, the voices opposed to the monument seem to have drowned out the voices of supporters in local circles.
Every elected official who represents administrative efforts in San Juan County has signaled opposition to the proposal.
The opposition ranges from City Councils and the County Commission, to officials in the state legislature and state government, to elected officials in the federal legislature.
In fact, the only elected official who appeared on local ballots and who has not chimed in on the effort is Obama himself.
The informal group that came together this summer to fight the monument has organized into the Stewards of San Juan.
The leadership includes chairwoman Jamie Bayles, co-chairs Ryan Benally and Suzette Morris, treasurer Wendy Black, and secretary Eva Workman.
Wendy Black has represented the group at recent meetings of the San Juan County Commission.
At one of the initial meetings, Commissioners praised the local effort, saying it has had a significant impact.
Commissioners said that significant credit for the delay in designating the monument is the result of the grassroots uprising.
“I think that at the beginning of this, the government was set to declare the monument soon after the visit of Sally Jewell,” said Janet Wilcox. “But because of all that has happened to oppose the monument, the government has stepped back and taken a closer look.”
Wilcox has headed up the effort to fight the designation through social and traditional media.
The work has included letters to the Editor, response to articles and editorials, and even several political cartoons.
“So many people have helped in so many ways,” said Wilcox. “This effort would not have been possible before the internet age. We have been able to have an impressive response despite limited funding and just a few organizational meetings. The internet certainly helped level the playing field.”
Indeed the effort is particularly impressive considering the well-funded effort to promote the designation of a monument.
“I would be interested in seeing a comparison of how much money both sides have spent,” stated Wilcox. “Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into the effort to declare a monument.”
“Who knows, the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument, which was declared by Bill Clinton in 1996, may have never been done in the age of the internet,” added Wilcox.
Another part of the effort has been the development of a website, savebearsears.com. The website was designed to put faces with the families who could be most impacted by the monument designation.
The website, a 100 percent volunteer effort, is run by Illuminated Moments, a Blanding-based business which paid for and hosts the site.
On July 4, Cindy Bayles, studio manager at Illuminated Moments, started work on SaveBearsEars.com. The first article was published on July 20.
Beginning July 21, Illuminated Moments and Brooke Pehrson Photography took to the mountains, where they photographed, recorded, and interviewed nearly 30 local families.
The first profile, on the Kenny and Amber Black family, was published on the site on July 25.
The stories of more than 50 families, representing more than 300 local residents, are currently featured on the site. Profiles on more than 20 additional families will be added in the near future.
The Al and Shirley Clarke family composed an open letter, stating, “While outsiders threaten to make this place a playground and a spectator sight for travelers, the locals are fighting to protect the sacred nature of this place.”
The Francom family lamented the visit of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to the area, stating “Sally Jewell’s token visit to our unspoiled Bear’s Ears mountain resulted in unsightly trash, new fire pits, trampled grass, and ugly ruts in the muddy meadow. This beautiful, sacred site was desecrated by people who ‘love’ this area (but have never been here before and have no interest in taking care of it).”
Rob and Kathryn Wilcox worry about how the monument will take care of search and rescue efforts asking, “Visitors underestimate the dangers and logistics that accompany this wilderness. The National Park Service does NOT have their own Search and Rescue system. They rely on the local Sheriff’s office in a crisis.
“The Bears Ears Monument would take in 1.9 million acres. How will our already over burdened law enforcement and Search and Rescue teams take care of that?”
Most recently, Ryan Benally and Kara Laws met with Grandma Ada Benally, a Navajo elder, to talk about the monument and photograph her family for the website.
After photos, they sat in Twin Rocks Café and Ada expressed her concerns as her granddaughter translated.
Ada said, “Originally it is land we all shared to gather wood and collect medicinal plants important to us because they don’t grow anywhere else but near Bears Ears. Now I feel we can no longer gather plants or cut wood. I’m afraid we’ll freeze.”
Ada said her grandson has already been told he cannot gather wood anymore and the family, knowing of the possibility of a monument, does not know where to turn to fight it. They are confused and frustrated.
As Ada’s words turned to near tears, her granddaughter said, “She doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. She feels unwelcome on the land. She had to buy firewood this year, and we have never done that.”
Ada Benally’s feature will be up on the website in the next week.
Nicole and Ben Safrit, who are also featured on the site, worry about their livelihood.
“It will limit use from the rural community,” said Ben. “Wood gathering is how I heat my home in the winter. Ranching is my livelihood. We need a high quantity of land to not overgraze the land. We need the mountains, as well as the desert country, to stay alive.
“We hunt the land to fill our freezers with meat to feed us through the year. This is our culture. Making it a monument will limit our use by people who don’t understand our culture, nor have the history with the land to know what’s best for it.
“The people that do the most for this land and for this county are – most of the time – the locals, making it better for the benefit of ranching, benefit of our children, and for others.”
The Joni and Derek Dickson family note the similarities between people who use land to support their families, “When it comes to respect, there are a lot of similarities and significances between my Diné traditional belief, the ranchers, and those who hunt/gather in a majority of San Juan County,” said Dickson. “We use this land as a resource for our prayers, our food, and to teach the future generation of children our culture and family traditions.”
The site includes several Native American families, both Ute and Navajo, who interviewed in their native language. The profiles include cattle ranchers, business owners, city councilmen, teachers, veterans, and police officers.
“What they hold in common is that these people love the land in a way that others may never understand,” explains Kara Laws. “When you depend on land, when you grow up on land, you appreciate it as more than just a pretty place. It becomes a part of you.”
There have been more than 26,000 views in the four months the website has been live, averaging 50 to 1,300 hits per day.
A petition was loaded to whitehouse.gov as one of the first efforts to fight the monument. It received approximately 15,000 signatures before it was removed at the end of a 30-day deadline.
After this effort, a petition was added to savebearsears.com. The petition has gathered more than 3,100 signatures since it went up on August 18. This new petition will not expire or be removed.
Laws reports that the website is moving forward and has been successful. The Google search ranking of the site increases with every visit to the site. Every time the site is shared, and every time a new family is published, the site climbs higher.
A Google search of “Save Bears Ears” results in the local website listed near the top of the search results. However, a simple “Bears Ears” search results in a number of pro-monument sites. The local effort does not show up in the search results.
SaveBearsEars.com also hosts a donation site that allows for things like parade floats, advertising, informational brochures, and to cover the costs of education efforts and spreading correct information.
The site also lists other ways people can help fight against the proposed monument and provides links to communities that are battling the same fight in other areas.
The website is also used as a resource for information about why many local residents oppose a monument designation, how a monument could impact the area, and has been a good landing page for reporters and citizens not in the area who look to learn more.