Salt Lake City, Utah – This past week, the Alliance for a Better Utah joined fellow members of the Ballots Not Bullets Coalition — a group of organizations from across the country concerned by the increasing use and threat of violence to influence public policy — in denouncing the possibility of armed confrontation in response to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. The monument was proposed by five sovereign tribal nations comprising the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and is now supported by 26 tribal governments, many local citizens, and others.
Regrettably, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) have both recently made ominous statements foretelling potential violence if the Obama administration designates the monument.
Members of the Coalition issued the following responses:
“Implied violence is not how we make public lands policy in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, who was on the ground counter-protesting the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. “By suggesting rather than denouncing possible violence, Senator Hatch joins the conspiring ranks of Cliven Bundy and his assault-rifle-clad militia thugs who would seize America’s public lands at any cost, laws and democracy be damned.”
“It’s very disappointing to see Senator Hatch and Representative Chaffetz warning our government about violence while doing nothing to make it clear to their constituents that such violence would be both illegal and extraconstitutional,” said Josh Kanter, chairman of the board for Alliance for a Better Utah. “As elected leaders, if they fail to educate Utahns about the peaceful methods we use to redress grievances under our Constitution, they will be partially responsible for any armed confrontation that might take place.”
“There are many people of good faith—at the federal, state and local level—working to resolve this issue at this time,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians. “There is absolutely no reason that anyone should even be considering violence. Such conflict would only serve to further degrade this historic site and put the lives of our men and women in law enforcement at risk.”
“It’s shocking and dangerous to see this kind of fear-mongering by elected officials,” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “These attitudes encourage the type of violence-promoting stunts that we are seeing in southern Utah. We treasure our democracy in this country— elected officials should respect the legislative and legal processes without validating violence.”
The proposed Bears Ears National Monument encompasses 1.9 million acres of land in Utah with tremendous historical and archaeological significance. The region contains rock art dating back thousands of years and tens of thousands of ancient objects and structures. Archaic hunter-gatherers and early Ancestral Puebloan farmers lived there in the past.
Unfortunately, recent acts of vandalism are now threatening this national treasure. There have been at least two dozen confirmed looting incidents over the past five years, including six in the past six months. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with just two law enforcement officers to patrol the vast expanse of Bears Ears, cannot guarantee the sanctity of the area given existing arrangements.
Currently, the Obama administration is “review[ing] tribal proposals to permanently protect sacred lands for future generations.” One potential step would be to designate the public lands that currently make up the Bears Ears as a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Proponents say such a monument could ensure protection of irreplaceable resources while simultaneously promoting economic development through increased tourism. Opponents to the monument mistakenly claim that tribes in the area will be cut off from traditional uses of the land, such as resource gathering.
There have been several disturbing incidents of misinformation being spread about the monument in Bears Ears. Recently, a sign was posted declaring “open season” on Colorado backpackers, stating, “The hunt is open anywhere in San Juan County, Utah. There is no limit on how many may be harvested. Any weapon may be used.” Other signs have falsified Department of Interior communications to spread baseless rumors.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) issued an ominous statement in response to the monument proposal, saying, “I would hope that my fellow Utahans would not use violence [in response to the designation of Bear Ears as a national monument], but there are some deeply held positions that cannot be ignored.” Hatch reiterated this threat of armed confrontation in a private meeting with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on March 8. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3rd) warned, “There is a lot of conflict that has escalated into being on the precipice of violence that is unnecessary and unwarranted.” Both men oppose the designation. Neither has made any public statements denouncing violence in response to the designation or acknowledging that such violence would be unacceptable and extraconstitutional.
The threat of violence is unfortunate because various elected officials have been working diligently to forge a compromise. While Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution on May 19th indicating the state’s opposition to a national monument, that resolution still favored “protection and conservation of the Bear Ears area” through a “constitutionally sound, locally driven legislative approach.” House Natural Resources Committee chairman Ron Bishop (R-UT) has proposed legislation that would address land-use in seven counties in eastern Utah. A draft released in January 2016, and denounced by the conservation community, would give some protective status on 4.3 million acres, but would also expedite oil and gas drilling, convey title to the state of Utah to thousands of disputed roads, bar any future Antiquities Act designations in seven Utah counties, and convey some 50,000 acres of federal lands to the state.
The Ballots Not Bullets Coalition is a group of organizations that are concerned by the increasing use of violence — and threats of violence — to affect public policy in the United States. The coalition believes that there is no legitimate role for political violence under our Constitution.