Big money, environmentalists and the Bears Ears story
By Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Deseret News
Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2016 6:15 p.m. MDT
SALT LAKE CITY — In October 2014, a group of people sat around a table and discussed their campaign to bring a monument designation to southeast Utah for the region they called Bears Ears.
This wasn’t a group of Native American tribal leaders from the Four Corners, but board members from an increasingly successful conservation organization who met in San Francisco to discuss, among other things, if it was wise to “hitch our success to the Navajo.”
Many Utah Navajo are against a monument designation for Bears Ears, but the out-of-state tribal leaders behind the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition who support it insist the effort is one that is locally driven, locally supported and grass-roots in nature.
“None of the drivers of this are coming from the environmental community. It is purely Native American led. This is a Native American led effort. Any suggestion otherwise is not true,” said Gavin Noyes, the executive director of Utah Dine’ Bikeyah, a nonprofit, Salt Lake City organization that works to protect indigenous lands for future generations.
But the campaign is fueled in part with $20 million in donations from two key philanthropic foundations headquartered in California — the Hewlett and Packard foundations — that cite environmental protections as a key focus for the grants they award.
Both foundations directed grants to groups like The Wilderness Society for the Bears Ears campaign, or for Colorado Plateau protections to the Grand Canyon Trust or to Round River Conservation Studies, of which Noyes served as director.
In mid-July, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation announced its biggest ever round of grants for environmental causes — some $15.6 million — with some of that going to the Bears Ears campaign via Utah Dine’ Bikeyah.
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Tribe and co-chairwoman of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said it is an insult to Native Americans for people to accuse them of being influenced by special interest groups.
“It is absolutely, really absurd to say that. It is an insult to say that. (These groups) serve a good purpose for research and support,” she said.