SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — The juniper mesas and sunset-red canyons in this corner of southern Utah are so remote that even the governor says he has probably only seen them from the window of a plane. They are a paradise for hikers and campers, a revered retreat where generations of American Indian tribes have hunted, gathered ceremonial herbs and carved their stories onto the sandstone walls.
Today, the land known as Bears Ears — named for twin buttes that jut out over the horizon — has become something else altogether: a battleground in the fight over how much power Washington exerts over federally controlled Western landscapes.
At a moment when much of President Obama’s environmental agenda has been blocked by Congress and stalled in the courts, the president still has the power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments on federal lands with the stroke of a pen. A coalition of tribes, with support from conservation groups, is pushing for a new monument here in the red-rock deserts, arguing it would protect 1.9 million acres of culturally significant land from new mining and drilling and become a final major act of conservation for the administration.
Conservative lawmakers across the state have lined up to oppose any new monument. Ranchers, county commissioners, business groups and even some local tribal members object to it as a land grab that would add crippling restrictions on animal grazing, oil and gas drilling and road-building in a rural county that never saw its share of Utah’s economic growth. Unemployment here is 8.4 percent, more than double the state average.
“We’ve chosen to live here knowing we’re never going to get rich,” said Bruce Adams, a San Juan county commissioner and fifth-generation rancher whose cattle largely graze on federal allotments. “We chose to live here because we love the land, we love the country.”
To create a new monument out of Bears Ears “would be almost un-American,” Mr. Adams said. Val Dalton, a rancher who grazes cattle almost exclusively on federal land, said new federal protections “would put us out of business.”
But for the coalition of tribes and nature advocates seeking preservation, a new national monument here would preserve a stretch of mountains, mesas and canyons six times the size of Los Angeles. It could also create a new model for how public lands are managed: The tribal coalition of Navajos, Zunis, Hopis, Utes and Ute Mountain Utes wants to jointly manage the land with the government.
“You can’t talk about who we are as a people without talking about the land,” said Eric Descheenie, a chairman of the intertribal coalition leading the effort. “The same kind of love that we have for relatives is no different than the love we have for the land. Our traditional people know and understand these lands as living, breathing beings.”
A monument at Bear Ears was always going to be a fight, but the armed occupation of a federal wildlife sanctuary in rural Oregon this year has added a raw edge to the debate. Ranchers and conservative land activists here opposed the takeover of the Malheur sanctuary, but sympathized with the grievances over grazing lands and federal rules that lay at the heart of the siege.
When Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, visited the White House this winter, he hand-delivered a note urging Mr. Obama not to proclaim a new monument in Bears Ears. He cited the “heated and antagonistic” dispute over public lands, and said any presidential proclamation could poison the debate for decades.
Indeed, Utahns are still mistrustful over the fact that nearly 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument here, Mr. Herbert said in a telephone interview.
“This is just going to add kerosene onto the fire,” he said. “It’s not a smart thing to do.”
Last month, at the urging of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, Mr. Obama designated three national monuments in Southern California, covering 1.8 million acres. By contrast, Utah’s Republican representatives in Salt Lake City and in Washington overwhelmingly oppose Mr. Obama acting on his own: Instead, they are pushing a broader bill that would conserve some stretches of land while allowing energy development in other parcels.
“Not all Western lands are Yellowstone,” said Representative Rob Bishop, who, with his fellow Utah Republican congressman, Jason Chaffetz, has been cobbling together a huge public-lands bill that would draw a new map for wilderness, roads, energy development and recreation across 18 million federal acres in eastern Utah.
“There needs to be some kind of trade-off,” Mr. Bishop said. “This administration is trying to stop all kinds of economic and mining development.”
His proposal would conserve about four times as much land as it envisions for energy development. It would also preserve about 1.2 million acres of the Bears Ears as a “national conservation area.” Environmental groups have largely denounced the plan, saying it would lead to more roads and traffic in the back country and open eastern Utah to tar-sands extraction and new oil drilling. Tribal groups pushing for a monument say they would have a far weaker voice in how the area was managed.
Opinions are as split as opposite sides of a canyon in the tiny towns like Aneth, White Mesa and Montezuma Creek, where nodding pump jacks draw up oil, packs of wild horses dart across the roads, and occasional cars of tourists pull over to snap photos.
Harrison Johnson said his Diné ancestors (more commonly called Navajos) hunted and lived in the Bears Ears region long before Utah was Utah. People still go there to hunt elk or deer, gather wood for fence posts and herbs for ceremonies. And he said he wanted no more federal oversight of the land. “The protection’s already there for us,” Mr. Johnson said. “We don’t just go in there and tear up things. We know how to take care of the land.”
But Malcolm Lehi, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal council member, said it was time for tribes to have a more equal footing in caring for the West’s pristine places. On a recent hike past the rock-art carvings and old dwellings, it was so still that he could hear a bird’s wings beating as it whooshed past him.
“It stopped me in my tracks,” Mr. Lehi said. “The past has never left us. It is present to this day, and I heard the past come back alive.”