Legislative processes both past and present have been initiated to resolve the debate over public lands and wilderness protection in San Juan County. However, organizers have not included Navajo in these discussions. Therefore in response to recent legislative efforts the Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Navajo Nation collaborated to gather cultural information, ecological condition, development threats, and wildlife habitat data sets, whereby they could be assembled and utilized to identify priority areas for wilderness, National Conservation Areas, National Monuments and other Congressional and administrative land-use designations.
Even though San Juan County possesses some of the largest tracts of contiguous wilderness in the continental US, no protection has been achieved. This is largely because it is widely recognized that no land plan will be brought before Congress by the Utah congressional delegation unless that plan originates from the affected County. Building such local constituency is very challenging in Utah. However, unlike other counties in Utah, the Navajo Nation has the potential to be the catalyst to achieve this critical mass of support: the Navajo control over 20% of the land base in San Juan County; Navajos represent over half the resident population; a Navajo individual holds one of the three local Commissioner positions, and Navajos actively use public lands for hunting, gathering and ceremonial purposes.
Consequently, at the end of 2012, the Navajo Nation and the San Juan County Commission entered into an agreement to jointly undertake a land planning process. The joint planning agreement includes a commitment to produce a land-use plan that identifies specific land use designations within San Juan County.
In April of 2013 the Navajo Nation presented to the San Juan County Commissioners and to Utah Congressional representatives the 1.9 million acre Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area as their formal position for the negotiations. As the negotiations with the County and Congressional representatives continue, the Navajo remain optimistic a successful outcome is possible. However, in the event of these negotiations failing, both the Navajo Nation and Utah Diné Bikéyah have agreed to pursue a National Monument designation.
Additionally, on August 9, 2013 the Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area proposal was presented at an open house sponsored by Utah Congressman Bishop in Monticello, Utah. For specific information on this open house proceed to following web site page – http://www.utahdinebikeyah.org/utah-navajo.html.
The Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area includes wilderness designations, as well as a co-management relationship to ensure the sustainable continuation of culturally important activities.
The goals proposed for the Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area are: 1) provide clear management prioritization toward the protection of cultural and biological resources over other land-uses; 2) increase funding allocation to improve management of resources for this region; 3) create a process that recognizes the legitimate interests of the Navajo on federal land; and 4) provide a means of incorporating the extensive and valuable knowledge of the Navajo into land management decisions.
To honor the deep history and continuing interests of the Navajo Nation in this region, the Nation is proposing to have a formal role in planning and managing the Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area. Because the Navajo actively use and rely upon these lands, management of the area should incorporate Navajo input to effectively protect the diverse resources encompassed by the National Conservation Area.
For the Navajo, the opportunity to collaborate in the management of the Diné Bikéyah National Conservation Area ensures that these lands will be managed in a manner that protects their deep interest in San Juan County. Federal agencies will also benefit from Navajo contributions to planning and management through more diverse input informing decision-making, and increased resources for management and enforcement.
Diné people have long been observers in the debate over management of public lands in southwestern Utah. This is not because they do not care, or do not want to play an active role in the stewardship of these lands and natural resources. Simply, no one asked. This is the time to share Navajo concerns and to help maintain these lands in their natural state for generations to come. The Navajo have centuries of knowledge that has been passed down, and collectively they have an obligation to see that the beauty, sacredness, and abundance of life of these lands is restored and maintained.