SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A coalition of outdoor sports companies in Salt Lake City voiced support Thursday for a proposed national monument in southeastern Utah that has become a flashpoint in the debate over public lands in the West.
Company leaders from a group that included The North Face, Patagonia, Rossignol and Black Diamond said at a Thursday news conference that preserving open spaces is paramount to keeping their industry vibrant and allowing Utah-based companies to recruit top talent.
"Bears Ears is the largest, most culturally rich, biologically diverse, spectacularly pristine ecosystem left in the lower 48 states," said Peter Metcalf, Black Diamond founder. "If you want to see the landscapes protected as they are, you should support a monument."
The event marked the latest salvo in an intense back-and-forth between monument supporters and opponents over the last several months in Utah.
A coalition of tribes put forth the idea of the Bears Ears National Monument, which would add protections for a 1.9 million-acre area. It includes sites that proponents contend are sacred to Native Americans and in dire need of protection.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the area last month and held a public meeting — the latest indication that President Barack Obama's administration is seriously considering the proposal.
Hundreds of people who oppose the proposal attended a Senate field hearing in Blanding, Utah, last week to hear from a panel of critics. Gov. Gary Herbert called the proposal a "political tomahawk," drawing rebuke from supporters who said his comment showed he was dismissing native voices.
Utah's top Republican lawmakers instead want Congress to designate 1.4 million acres around Bears Ears as a conservation area while opening up other lands in the state for development. Opponents fear a federal designation would create restrictions on oil and gas development and on residents' ability to camp, bike, hike, and gather wood.
Metcalf and Hans Cole of Patagonia said that proposal doesn't do enough to protect the area.
This is not the first time key leaders in the outdoor recreation industry, which generates an estimated $646 billion in annual consumer sales, have spoken out against Utah political leaders. Many of the same people who spoke Thursday were also outspoken critics of a Utah law passed in 2012 demanding the federal government hand over federally managed lands that account for two-thirds of the state.
Nazz Kurth, president of Salt Lake City-based Petzl America, said the rock climbing in the Bears Ears area is world renowned, drawing people from Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Coles called the area a beautiful but fragile landscape in need of protection.
"As people who benefit from this place in so many ways through recreation and exposure to its cultural richness, we feel a responsibility to speak out and support the vision of the Native American tribal coalition," Coles said.
Critics of the proposal attended the news conference and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee issuing a video statement saying he was disappointed in the companies' stance.
Lee said he's met with Native Americans and that and "it is clear that they do not want big business colluding with the federal government to take away their land and threaten their way of life."
Danielle Shirley, a Native American, came to the news conference with a sign that read, "Locals do not want a monument." Shirley, a University of Utah graduate from San Juan County, said her 90-year-old grandmother has grazing rights and fears they will be taken away along with the ability to gather sacred herbs and wood.
Beverly Redd, of Blanding, Utah, sat in the back wearing a T-shirt with a picture of slain rancher LaVoy Finicum, who served as a spokesman for ranchers in an armed standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge earlier this year.
"They're not from our area. They don't know that it's going to drive us off the land," Redd said of the outdoor companies. "All they see is how much money they can make. They don't see what they are doing to us, who live there."