The Bears Ears Buttes in Utah area framed with summer wild flowers. Photo: Tim Peterson

A highway named for President Trump? Tribal leaders say not so fast

An effort to name a highway in Utah after President Donald Trump is apparently dead after drawing significant attention beyond the state's borders.

Mike Noel, a Republican state lawmaker, introduced H.B. 481, the Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway Designation, barely one week ago. But in that short time, it generated scorn from Democrats, skeptical coverage in the mainstream media and opposition from leaders of the Navajo Nation.

“The Navajo Nation firmly opposes this bill,” President Russell Begaye said in a press release on Wednesday.

The reason was simple. Trump, without consulting the Navajo Nation or other tribes, came to Utah last December and dismantled the Bears Ears National Monument, taking away strong protections for millions of acres of ancestral territory, burial grounds and sacred sites.

“To name a highway after Trump is like putting salt into an open wound,” Begaye said.

The fact that the 650-mile roadway question, known locally as the Utah National Parks Highway, runs through or around five national parks and seven national monuments represented even further insult, Navajo leaders said.

“All of it is land where Native Americans have lived for millennia, and President Trump has not shown respect for Native Nations,” James Adakai, the president of the Oljato Chapter, a Navajo local government unit in Utah, said in a letter this month. He offered a more respectful proposal -- name the highway after Ernst Yazhe, a Navajo Code Talker who lived in Utah prior to his passing in 2016 at the age of 92.

Though H.B. 481 cleared its first legislative hurdle on Monday, the unwanted attention was apparently too much to bear. Noel told media outlets on Wednesday that he won't pursue the bill.

"There are certainly bills that are extremely controversial," Noel, who said he received threats for his effort, told The Deseret News. "This one has controversy, not because we don't appreciate what the president did in terms of the monuments, but it's all the issues that have come up around him and swirling around him."

The Navajo Nation is among five tribal governments suing President Trump in hopes of blocking his attempt to reduce the size of Bears Ears. They claim he lacks the authority to change the boundaries, which would result in 85 percent of the original monument designation being taken away.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. It's since been consolidated with two similar cases.

The Trump administration is seeking to have the disputes transferred to the federal court in Utah due to "strong local interest." Politicians and residents there remain strongly opposed to Bears Ears, especially in San Juan County, where the majority non-Indian power structure has been found to violate the constitutional rights of tribal citizens.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan has not yet ruled on the request. She incidentally was nominated to the bench by former president Barack Obama, who declared the 1.35 million-acre monument in December 2016.

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