Newly-released documents reveal extensive communication between Interior and Utah officials before Bears Ears designation

Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods, Bureau of Land Management

New documents published today show years of communication and coordination between local Utah stakeholders, elected officials, and the Obama administration prior to President Obama permanently protecting Bears Ears as a national monument. The documents directly contradict multiple statements from Utah politicians who claimed the monument designation came as a surprise and without the consultation of state leaders.

The day after Bears Ears was designated, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz demanded documents regarding actions taken by the Obama administration in using the Antiquities Act. The request asked for all communications between White House staff, Secretary Sally Jewell, and Bureau of Land Management employees.

Following the designation, the entire Utah congressional delegation wrote a letter stating, “As a parting shot of his presidency, Obama ignored the petition of these local Navajo — and the will of thousands of Utahns — when he designated the Bears Ears National Monument.” In a tweet, Governor Gary Herbert said the decision “ignores the will of the majority of Utahns.”

Despite the hardline rhetoric lobbed against the Bears Ears National Monument by Utah politicians, their internal communications make it clear as day: this region is not just deserving of the permanent protections granted last year, but President Obama’s team went to great lengths over several years to coordinate and collaborate with Utah leaders before protecting Bears Ears, the culmination of 80 years of conservation efforts.

The Interior Department documents reveal repeated contacts with Utah Governor Herbert, Senator Orrin Hatch, Chairman Rob Bishop, Chairman Jason Chaffetz, and their staffs over four years since 2013, including meetings or calls with the Secretary in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, as well as feedback in the form of technical assistance on their bill, the Public Lands Initiative, which never came up for a vote.

Highlights from the documents

On July 18, 2016, following Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s trip to Utah, a staffer to Utah Governor Gary Herbert emailed Nicole Buffa, Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary Jewell, writing:

“As I recently relayed to the Governor’s Chief of Staff, your team orchestrated a comprehensive, balanced, well-run, and effective trip to southeast Utah. I also have to compliment you on the listening session on Saturday. We were worried it might get out of hand but it went off brilliantly. Kudos to you and your team!”

On September 13, 2016, an employee with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration emailed staff at the Department of the Interior thanking them for meeting, writing:

“We truly appreciate the amount of time your office has devoted to the school trust land issue.”

On September 13, 2016, a staffer to Utah Senator Mike Lee emailed Nicole Buffa, writing:

“Since it is looking like Congress, the hardest working institution in America, is going to get out of dodge next week, we may not have the opportunity to introduce PLI.… We are still reviewing your ta [technical assistance] and deciding how to proceed. Just wanted to keep you informed since you have been forthcoming with us.”

On November 3, 2016, a staffer to Utah Senator Mike Lee sent an email to inform Secretary Jewell’s staff of a meeting Senator Lee’s office had with tribal representatives, writing:

“The conversation went well. Both sides were conciliatory and regretted the current state of affairs. Much of the meeting was necessarily spent atoning and promising to work towards our shared goal: protecting Bears Ears.”

In February 2017, Representative Chaffetz began an investigation over a tweet from Bryce Canyon National Park welcoming Bears Ears National Monument, claiming the park may have had advanced knowledge of the monument not given to the Utah delegation. These newly released documents show that Utah politicians were been communicating with the Obama administration for years leading up to the monument. Most importantly, the communications show that local groups, Utah elected officials, and the Obama administration all agree that the region deserved permanent protection.