Some members of the outdoor communities at Westminster College and the University of Utah feel the state’s attempts at a public lands resolution could end up causing more harm than good, potentially damaging both the environment and Native American history.
Before former President Barack Obama left office, he declared Bears Ears in southeastern Utah a national monument—a polarizing decision that Utah’s politicians have largely opposed, citing federal overreach.
To fight the designation, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a resolution to petition President Donald Trump to rescind the national monument, which led the Outdoor Industry Association to leave Utah in protest of the state’s public lands policies.
Chris Keim, an environmental studies major at Westminster, is doing his capstone project on Bears Ears. He said the Outdoor Industry Association pulled its twice-yearly conventions out of Utah to raise awareness of public land issues.
“They really want to see the land get protected because there is a push from the state to take away some of the land and potentially privatize it, which could lead to future fossil fuel development,” Keim said.
Utah has hosted the Outdoor Retailer convention for 20 years. The show annually generates around $45 million in direct spending and over 40,000 visitors, providing a substantial boost to the state’s economy.
Herbert and members of the Outdoor Industry Association met to attempt a resolution but did not came to an agreement, and the association officially indicated its desire to move its convention out of Salt Lake City.
A spokesperson for Herbert called the decision to leave “offensive.”
Although the Outdoor Industry Association and the state couldn’t come to an agreement, Keim said their desire to obtain land isn’t unwarranted.
“I think there is a little bit of merit to their desire to obtain land,” Keim said. “There are a lot of resources on the land and it would be very easy for them to develop on it, which would kind of be the incentive to fuel the economy by making money off the land.”
Though the land provides resources, Keim said the outdoor recreation and Native American culture in the area should also be considered and respected.
“For the recreational aspect alone the area is just beautiful,” Keim said. “But it’s also super important to preserve that cultural relevance that the Native Americans hold to it.”
Keim recently visited the Bears Ears area and said its presence provides the state with more options for recreationalists.
“You see areas like Moab are just crowded with people and when these areas get crowded we need more space,” Keim said. “That was the coolest thing about going to Bears Ears last weekend; it was empty down there.”
Other college students said they understand both sides of the argument but ultimately believe the monument provides the best use of the land.
Eyrie Horton, an assistant outreach coordinator for Westminster’s Environmental Center, has attended several hearings on Bears Ears.
“Most of the legislators in Utah want the monument rescinded,” Horton said. “There is also a good faction of people that live in San Juan that are against it because they think it’s going to take away from their ranching lands.”
Horton interned with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and said she has talked to some people in San Juan who were against the monument.
“Their take on it was that this land is already protected and that the government is going to come in and do weird stuff to it,” Horton said. “They don’t think there would be any fossil fuel development or any mal-use of the land.”
Horton said she disagrees with that stance and said the monument provides support to the indigenous heritage in the area and protects the land from development.
“The monument does support the indigenous heritage,” she said. “Also in general I like monuments, I like outdoor recreation areas and I like protecting red rock from fossil fuel and other development.”
Vic Ream, a University of Utah graduate and a self-proclaimed “outdoor enthusiast,” said he doesn’t think the Legislature’s intention is to develop all the land but that its attempts to thwart the monument are not a good look.
“I honestly don’t think Utah politicians want to sell off all of the Bears Ears National Monument,” Ream said. “I think they are trying to get some monetary use out of small portion of the monument, but lobbying Trump to rescind the national monument status just isn’t a good look for the state.”
Going forward, Utah legislators have plans to continue pushing the Trump administration to rescind Bears Ears National Monument.
H.C.R. 11, for example, “Expresses a strong opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument designation; and urges the President of the United States to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument.”