In a sweltering community hall, 350 people sat and stood while another 200 listened outside under a tent in 100-degree heat.
For 3½ hours, more than 70 people commented on the pros and cons of a proposed 1.9-million-acre monument versus a smaller National Conservation Area being sought under the Public Lands Initiative.
Jewell has been on a four-day tour of public lands proposed for additional protection. She met with county governments and local tribes and toured Comb Ridge, Indian Creek, Cedar Mesa and Moon House Ruin.
“One thing I have heard every place I’ve been on this trip is the desire to protect what is here for future generations,” Jewell said.
“I would say you don’t get a sense of what is here until you get out on the landscapes and meet the people of these communities, and that has been a very rich and heartwarming experience,” she said.
Opponents argue that the monument proposal is broad and could close off access to the land for development, including oil and gas development, and recreation.
Instead, they’re backing legislation from U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz – the Public Lands Initiative – that would have Congress designate 1.4 million acres around Bears Ears as a conservation area.
President Barack Obama could proclaim a national monument under the Antiquities Act, as President Bill Clinton did with the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument in 1996.
“All it will do is cause problems,” said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. “Take my word for it.”
Local county governments and residents mostly opposed the idea.
Conservation groups and native tribes support the measure. The Bears Ears Coalition, made up of leaders from Ute Mountain Ute, Northern Ute, Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes have been lobbying for the monument to the Obama administration.
Casey Snyder, representing two Utah legislators proposing the Public Lands Initiative, said a compromise bill is preferable for protecting the area.
“Declaring a monument will flare animosity that could otherwise be a peaceful process,” he said.
Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, of the Ute Mountain Ute tribal council, said the monument plan is a better idea because it specifically sets up co-management of the land between federal agencies and local tribes.
“Collaborative management allows native tribes to come together and bridge science with traditional knowledge,” she said.
Ute Shawn Chapoose echoed the Bears Ears Coalition decision to back out of negotiating with the Utah Legislature.
“Participating at the table only happens when your view is taken seriously, and that has not happened,” he said.
But other natives do not want the monument, fearing it could block them from using the area for traditional practices such as wood gathering to heat their homes.
Rebecca Benally, a Navajo and San Juan County commissioner, spoke in support of a legislative solution for additional protection because it is negotiated at the local level.
“As Navajos we know about broken promises and treaties. The NCA (legislative option) is a better public process because we work on it together,” she said.
Navajo President Russell Begaye disagreed, and urged that the monument be declared for the benefit of the Navajo people.
“While many may criticize using executive authority, a monument will protect our sacred resources and be remembered by our people for centuries,” Begaye said.
Josh Munson, of Dolores, spoke in favor of the monument. He said it should have been done earlier evidenced by the looting of artifacts in the Grand Gulch area and other places.
“It is tragic that those artifacts are all gone,” he said. “It’s time for more protection and funding, with co-management by Native Americans because this is their ancestral home.”
Many opposed to the monument feared it would bring too much attention to the area and increase impacts.
“The tool you want to use to protect it is the same tool that will destroy it,” said one commenter. “Vandalism is a growing problem in National Parks.”
Secretary Jewell nodded, smiled occasionally, and took notes throughout the marathon meeting.
“Thank you for sharing your perspectives,” she said. “We are here to listen and gain understanding.”
In Cortez, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center on Friday announced its support for increased protections for the Bears Ears area.
“The archaeology community supports the tribes in asking for increased protection for the Bears Ears area,” stated Deborah Gangloff, Crow Canyon president and CEO.
In June 2016, more than 700 archaeologists signed a letter to Obama supporting the designation of a national monument should Congress fail to pass meaningful legislation this year to protect Bears Ears.