Bi-Partisan Utah Bill establishes Tribal committee to create Bears Ears Visitor Center in San Juan County

Utah House Bill 341 passed out of the Utah State House of Representatives in February and the Utah State Senate on March 3. The bill creates an advisory committee to help explore the feasibility, location, functions, and other important matters surrounding the creation of a visitor center in or near Bears Ears National Monument.

The committee would include five voting members, made up of representatives appointed by the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation, Zuni Tribe, and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray.

Additional non-voting committee members would include two members of the Utah State House of Representatives, and one member of the Utah State Senate.

HB 341 is sponsored by Democrat Representative Doug Owens of Millcreek, and co-sponsored by Republican Representative Phil Lyman of Blanding.

In presenting the bill to the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee, Owens admitted the two were a bit of a political ‘odd-couple’.

Owens said regardless of where you think the boundaries of the monument ought to be, there are some issues seen in common.

“One is visitorship has increased dramatically in the Bears Ears area with very little being done to accommodate those visitors,” said Owens. “There’s no central facility for showcasing tribal culture and the archeological resources that are there. The area is also in need of economic development.”

Representative Lyman echoed Owen’s sentiment, adding that recognizing the cultures in the area transcends politics.

“If the executive (branch) wants to take control of a large part of Utah, it should also take responsibility and put in a visitor center,” said Lyman. “That’s another one of those things from whatever side of the aisle that you’re on… there should be an investment from the federal government.”

Once established the committee will hire a consultant to help plan the visitor center.

Once the committee has recommendations and plans, Owens and Lyman believe they can go to the federal government with a strong case to fund the creation of the visitor center with possible contributors from non-profits and the state of Utah.

Owens and Lyman said the design, location, and functions of the visitor center would be up to the committee members. The one input the representatives have to the committee is to think big.

The Representatives referenced creating a cultural center, something like the Utah Natural History Museum located in Salt Lake City or the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

Both buildings are several stories high, and more than 150,000 square feet, with several exhibits and gathering places.

The ultimate design of a Bears Ears Center would be up to the five tribal members of the proposed committee.

The bill allocated $17,000 to support the committee, which will be staffed by the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

The bill has support from nonprofit organizations, such as the Friends of Cedar Mesa, who spoke in favor of the bill at the house committee meeting. Owens also referenced support from Utah Diné Bikéyah, and efforts to get additional tribal support.

The bill was sponsored in the state senate by David Hinkins. Hinkins represents San Juan County in the state senate.

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