Bears Ears National Monument proposal creates tensions in Utah


Twin buttes rise above a few tiny towns near the Four Corners area in southeastern Utah. The tranquil rock formations known as the Bears Ears, and the 1.9 million acres of land surrounding them, are at the center of an environmental war that involves locals, politicians, Native American tribal governments and activists.

The controversy hinges on different perspectives of the land: Is the Bears Ears land a sacred space for those who have ancestral ties to the area, or is it an opportunity for tourism and monument designation?

The proposal

The Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition first submitted a 66-page document to the Obama administration proposing a Bears Ears National Monument in October 2015. The coalition was officially formed in July 2015 and is a partnership of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribal governments. Thirteen tribes that have supported the designation of a Bears Ears National Monument claim ancestral ties to the land.

Here are key elements of the proposal:

  • Bears Ears National Monument would consist of 1.9 million acres of land in southeastern Utah.
  • The proposed monument consists of national recreation areas and a designated wilderness area, lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service and the National Parks Service.
Map of the 1.9 million acres included in the Bears Ears National Monument proposal (courtesy Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition).
  • The monument would be created by an executive presidential order under authority granted in the Antiquities Act of 1906.
  • Collaborative management of the designated area would be composed of both the federal government and tribal government entities, which is unprecedented.
  • Protections would be in place for over 100,000 Native American cultural sites, ranging from lithic scatter to granaries to complex villages.

The monument proposal is a divisive issue among Utahns. The timeline below documents some of the events that have happened in the past year to support and oppose the monument designation.

(timeline created by Theresa Davis)

Monument support

Besides the Inter-tribal Coalition that proposed the Bears Ears Monument, special interest groups and some Native American tribal leaders support the monument designation.

Outdoor companies like Patagonia have joined the push for the monument. They cite vandalism and reckless resources gathering as reasons for a Bears Ears Monument. These companies’ funds and influence in the outdoor community have made it difficult for the opposition to voice their opinions.

Stephen Trimble is the editor of the book “Red Rock Testimony: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands.” Trimble and other contributors to the book delivered copies of the book to politicians in Washington, D.C. in June 2016 in an effort to establish the monument.

“With luck, the book will land in the hands of Sally Jewell or Barack Obama, inspiring the administration to pursue the proclamation of a new and innovative national monument,” Trimble wrote in an Orion Magazine article.

Former Ute Mountain Ute council member Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition. She says the reason for her support of the monument proposal is to preserve the land.

“We as Native Americans, we have a responsibility to make sure that (the land) is there for our future, for our children and grandchildren,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said in a video created for the coalition’s website.

Monument opposition

There are two primary groups opposing the monument designation: Utah state legislators and San Juan County residents, who live in the area and are looking at potential changes to their way of life.

Video: A Bright Future or Another Broken Promise? – Sutherland Institute

On Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, some Utah officials expressed opposition to the Bears Ears proposal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. They included Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

“The unilateral designation supported by special-interest groups, many of whom are not from Utah and have never visited San Juan County, shouldn’t be involved in this decision,” Love said on Capitol Hill.

The controversy surrounding the monument proposal caught the attention of the federal government in July when Interior Secretary Sally Jewel visited San Juan County for a public meeting in Bluff, Utah.

“I know there’s a lot of emotions running hot about the beauty of San Juan County and how to take care of it, and that’s why I’m here,” Jewell said in the meeting. “I’m here to listen, to listen to the community, to see for myself what’s here, but predominantly to listen.”

Jewell toured San Juan County public lands and listened to local opinions about the Bears Ears monument designation as part of her visit.

Many of the members of the monument’s opposition say they believe that the federal government and special interest groups are making big promises to Native American leaders using language in the proposal in order to increase the chances of a monument designation.

Lyle Bayles is a retired police chief in Blanding, Utah, who has lived most of his life in San Juan County.

“People keep saying they want to protect the Bears Ears,” Bayles said. “But it seems like most of them can’t even say what they would be protecting the Bears Ears from. These lands are already protected.”

Legislation to stop the Bears Ears National Monument designation is still in the works in Congress. Alternatives like the Public Lands Initiative are also being debated. Monument supporters hope to pass the monument designation into law before President Obama leaves office; the opposition is working hard to stop that from happening.

Read more about the grassroots monument opposition by San Juan County residents here.

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