A new poll shows 42% of Utah voters support keeping Bears Ears National Monument at its current size of 1.3 million acres, although nearly a third remain undecided on the divisive issue.
The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics, found 19% strongly support the monument at its original size set by President Obama in 2016, while 23% somewhat support it. Meanwhile, 26% oppose the current boundaries, with 15% strongly opposed and 11% somewhat opposed. A sizable 32% responded “don’t know,” illustrating the contentious debate around the southeastern Utah landscape.
The survey of 802 registered voters was conducted September 24-29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.23 percentage points.
The poll provides a snapshot of public opinion as the monument’s status remains tied up in court. In August, Utah sued the federal government arguing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments violate the Antiquities Act. Although a judge dismissed the case, the state quickly appealed, hoping to escalate it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bears Ears encompasses a rich cultural landscape with over 100,000 archaeological sites scattered throughout its rugged cliffs and canyons. The region holds deep spiritual significance for Native American tribes who advocated for years to protect the area from looting and development.
In the final weeks of his presidency, Obama established Bears Ears at the request of a tribal coalition including the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni. But the monument soon became a flashpoint in Utah’s public lands debate. In 2017, President Trump slashed Bears Ears by 85% to 315,000 acres and also cut Grand Staircase-Escalante nearly in half. President Biden restored the monuments’ original boundaries in 2021.
Utah leaders such as Gov. Spencer Cox argue the monument designation brings too many visitors, overwhelming budgets, and restricts potential mining of critical minerals needed to combat climate change.
However, the Inter-Tribal Coalition says politicians often overlook the Indigenous perspective.
“They’ve spoken in congressional hearings about objections to the monument size … but we don’t ever have numbers attached to that,” said coalition co-director Hillary Hoffmann.
While the poll didn’t break down results by county, Republican State Rep. Phil Lyman believes a local survey would reveal most San Juan County residents oppose the current size due to harm to the economy and industry. But he added that many outside the area may not grasp the nuances.
“It’s complex, and a lot gets lost,” Lyman said. “People don’t get it.”
Yet San Juan County is also home to a sizable Native American population, and in 2018, voters elected the first majority Native American county commission which later asked Biden to restore Bears Ears.
“Some of the tribal population of San Juan County has often been overlooked,” Hoffmann said.
While views remain split, the number of undecided respondents suggests the debate continues to evolve across Utah. For now, the courts will decide whether the towering cliffs, sacred sites and sweeping vistas of Bears Ears will remain protected as a national monument.
Cover photo courtesy of: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management