January 12, 2017; Deseret News

Movie star Leonardo DiCaprio has been beefing up his side job lately as an environmental activist. His latest coup: his foundation, along with a few other philanthropic organizations, recently donated $1.5 million to establish the Bears Ears Community Engagement Fund. The fund’s purpose is to “enhance local community efforts aimed at conservation of natural resources and assist Native American tribes at the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah.” Walter Phelps, a Navajo Nation council delegate, says the funds will help protect resources within the 1.35 million-acre monument.

Other foundations that added their names to the initial contribution: William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Wyss Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Wilburforce Foundation, and the Grand Canyon Trust. According to Hewlett Foundation Communications Officer Liz Judge, the Sacramento-based Resources Legacy Fund will manage the contributions.

The fund’s creation, however, is not without controversy. Some Utah leaders and local residents, who have been advocating against the monument’s designation, which came from President Obama on December 28th, now have another target—the newly created fund. They tout that it is a product of West Coast millionaires from outside the state and not the local community. They contend the monument will strangle economic development dependent on grazing and resource extraction.

Another local, however, has a different point of view:

Executive Director of Friends of Cedar Mesa Josh Ewing said, “Given the political situation, it is critical for private people to fill in where government will fall short. A lot will go to basic things like informing visitors how to visit respectfully. You need tools to do that. You need brochures and signage, things that cost money.”

But it appears Utah Republicans are up for the fight. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) met with Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior, last week to “right this wrong.”

Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer Jacqueline Keeler adds that at the heart of land disputes like Bears Ears is the value of the land. She asks, “Does the value of unspoiled wildness, the cultural heritage of indigenous people, and their ancestral connection to the land outweigh the exploitation of oil, coal, timber, grassland, and water to create wealth?”—Angie Wierzbicki