BLUFF, UTAH — By late morning in Bluff, the line was long, the sun was high, and the anticipation was building.
Hundreds of spectators had gathered awaiting an appearance by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, National Park Service Chief Jonathan Jarvis and other high-level Obama officials. They have traveled to the small desert town to listen to local opinions as they consider the proposed 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.
By 1 p.m., some 500 people crowded into the Bluff Community Center to hear from Jewell, and hundreds more listened in the 100-degree heat outside the center.
Jewell said the point of the public meeting was to listen to the people who love the Southeast Utah landscape so much. People on both sides — both those who are for and against the monument proposal — are looking toward the future, she said.
“I’ve heard a desire to protect these lands for future generations,” the secretary said.
If designated, the monument would stretch north to the Indian Creek area east of Canyonlands National Park and south to the San Juan River. It would comprise lands from Lake Powell to the west and U.S. Highway 191 to the east.
Former Durango Mayor Dean Brookie had waited in line since about 9 a.m. He said he was hoping for good conversation and a higher level of awareness among those with differing opinions.
“I’m for protecting our natural resources,” he said. “It’s a big part of our economy in the region.”
For Blanding resident Travis Pehrson, though, the Bears Ears region already has enough protection. He said the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have done a fantastic job protecting the area already. A monument designation also will bring more tourists to the area, and Pehrson said locals don’t want that.
“We’ve been blessed here because it’s isolated,” he said.
Pehrson said the area didn’t need to change.
“I think they will destroy the area if they turn it into a national monument,” he said.
Steve Simpson owns the Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff, which is named for the ubiquitous rock formations near the east entrance to town. Simpson, a Bluff resident since childhood, saw both sides of the argument.
“We don’t want to lose jobs here, but we also want to protect the land,” Simpson said. “It’s a difficult balance.”
Simpson had concerns about how the massive monument would be managed. He wasn’t sure that state and federal governments could work together to keep the area running.
“It’s extraordinary land,” he said. “It needs to be thoughtfully protected.”
Towaoc, Colorado resident Michela Alire, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said she wanted to see the Bears Ears area protected to leave a legacy for her children and future generations. The Ute Moutnain Ute tribe is one of 26 native tribes that have advocated for a national monument to protect the sacred tribal grounds and ancient archaeological sites.
Alire was amazed by the number of people from all over the west who converged in Southeast Utah. Though she said people can’t hope for the land to remain totally pristine, she was hopeful that there would be some progress soon.
“We take from our environment and we never give anything back,” she said. “We can leave the area better for our children.”