Black Diamond co-founder Peter Metcalf speaks at a press conference at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. During the press conference, representatives of leading sports, ski, health and outdoor companies urged President Barack Obama to permanently protect the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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.

Another monument supporter, Utah Dine’ Bikeyah’s board chairman Willie Grayeyes, said much of that support is with technology.

“They know how to produce mass communications and do social media. We don’t do social media. That is why we utilize their skills and connections. People say we are being paid under the table. We are not being paid and are not on salary.”

Byron Clarke, vice president of the Navajo community group Blue Mountain Dine’ and a member of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, does not support a monument designation and said he’s bothered by the implications from the San Francisco meeting of the Conservation Lands Foundation.

“The whole tone of it seems like the tribes are generally being used as pawns for the environmental groups to get what they really want,” Clarke said. “They are being played. It is somewhat insulting.”

Cedar Mesa

In the 2014 meeting, board members discussed the progress of the “Cedar Mesa campaign,” which is the Bears Ears area, with chairman Ed Norton inquiring about the dynamics of the tribes and how they were working together.

“There have been some bumps in the road, but progress is being made to gain support from multiple tribes for protection of the Cedar Mesa region,” the minutes of the meeting read.

The minutes, too, acknowledge that the Obama administration had more interest in Cedar Mesa than the Greater Canyonlands proposed monument because of tribal leadership. (continue reading here).