A tribal coalition wins a monument for Bears Ears

While consensus supporting a designation grew, many Utah politicians argued that the president’s action is an abuse of power.


Even before President Obama uncapped his pen Dec. 28, to sign a proclamation creating the Bears Ears National Monument, Utah’s political figures, from the Statehouse to the U.S. Congress, had gone off on a caterwauling binge. 

At a state Capitol rally led by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican Sen. Mike Lee a few days before Christmas, a chorus of wailing warned against a “midnight monument” and executive overreach. Their criticism was to be expected, and now that the president has acted, what will likely follow is a serious assault on our public lands and the Antiquities Act itself, which authorizes presidents to protect federal lands as national monuments.

Opponents called Bears Ears the "midnight monument" during the Obama admin's last days. It was designated, along with Gold Butte in Nevada, on Dec. 28.
JT Thomas

The Utah anti-monument crowd had continually mischaracterized the process that led to Obama’s decision, failing to acknowledge the broad public support the monument proposal enjoyed. The campaign for the Bears Ears designation was initiated and carried across the finish line by a coalition of Southwestern Native American tribes.

The tribes’ ancestral ties to the region, and their sorrow over the repeated desecration of its archaeology and sacred sites, give them unquestioned legitimacy and moral authority. The monument drive encompassed a long and open public dialogue that revealed a broad consensus that the lands in question needed conserving. The president’s signature came only after federal legislation failed to accomplish that conservation objective. 

But no matter how a consensus grew supporting a monument designation, many Utah politicians argued that the president’s action to protect 1.35 million acres as a monument was an abuse of executive power. They also called it a land grab that trampled on the rights of San Juan County locals to use those federal lands — which belong to all Americans — however they saw fit. 

That song has been sung in Utah for generations, even as big swaths of federal land — originally protected as monuments — evolved into national parks that have become cash cows in the state’s thriving recreation economy. 

The same politicians who fulminate about the “mother of all land grabs,” go on national park tours to celebrate the more than $1 billion that Utah’s five national parks hoover into the economy each year. And they make sure the parks are celebrated on license plates, in tourist-wooing television ads, and a campaign trumpeting the “Mighty 5” national parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. 

Somehow, these critics never get around to mentioning that four of those five parks started life as national monuments, created by “abusive” presidential authority.

Now that conservative Republicans — many of them hostile to protected public lands — have a hammerlock on Washington as powerful as the one they’ve long had on Utah’s capital, that song has a new verse. And it promises a concerted attack on the bedrock American ideal that federal lands should be managed in the public interest.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, whose campaign account is regularly blessed by the fossil fuel, mining and timber industries, has been warbling that tune in the ears of President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team. Bishop says he wants not only to neuter the Antiquities Act but also to undo existing national monuments, including Grand Staircase-Escalante. He would like to hand over these public lands to the states and private developers.

Bishop had a chance to broker a sensible truce in Utah’s long wilderness wars. More than three years ago, he kicked off what at first appeared to be serious talks with county governments, conservation groups and other stakeholders. But his long-awaited Public Lands Initiative turned out to be little more than a despoilers’ bill of rights that caved in to the demands of county commissioners. In Utah, these are likely to be the same folks whose idea of stewardship is bulldozing illegal roads across public lands. The bill went nowhere in the waning days of the last Congress. 

When Congress resumes, Bishop and his allies will almost certainly be back, not just with another version of what really should be called the Plundered Lands Initiative, but likely with something far worse.  Even though they are running counter to the long arc of public-lands conservation in the West, for now they have the political wind at their backs.

For all the residents and all the visitors from around the world who cherish the red-rock landscapes of Utah, the next few years will be a time to remember, and to act on, another verse from a very different song. It’s the one by Woody Guthrie that declares: “This land was made for you and me.”


Tom Kenworthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is chairman of the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and lives in Golden, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Greg Lind
Greg Lind
Dec 28, 2016 05:20 PM
Thanks Prez Obama! Let's hope that the Trump administration will not be able to nullify this exe action.
Irene Schmidt
Irene Schmidt Subscriber
Dec 28, 2016 10:51 PM
I just wrote a letter to Gov. Herbert telling him how important the protection of this land is to me and that I come to Utah almost every year and spend lots of money visiting MY public lands. I asked that he stop opposing the protection of these irreplaceable treasures. I hope many others will do the same thing.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Jan 01, 2017 08:17 PM
If there was no hypocrisy...there would be no Utah!!...We are at the same impasse that America was at in the 1850s between slavers and free!...Utah is on the slaver side!..It has always been about the white male power and the money to finance the fraud...and it still is!!.
Wendy Black
Wendy Black
Jan 01, 2017 09:00 PM
This has to do with the title of your article. First of all the coalition never won anything. The wording in the proclamation is ". The Secretaries shall provide for maximum public involvement in the development of that plan including, but not limited to, consultation with federally recognized tribes and State and local governments. In the development and implementation of the management plan, the Secretaries shall maximize opportunities, pursuant to applicable legal authorities, for shared resources, operational efficiency, and cooperation.

The Secretaries, through the BLM and USFS, shall establish an advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 U.S.C. App.) to provide information and advice regarding the development of the management plan and, as appropriate, management of the monument. This advisory committee shall consist of a fair and balanced representation of interested stakeholders, including State and local governments, tribes, recreational users, local business owners, and private landowners.

In recognition of the importance of tribal participation to the care and management of the objects identified above, and to ensure that management decisions affecting the monument reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge, a Bears Ears Commission (Commission) is hereby established to provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans and on management of the monument. " The coalition is not even recognized as such. They are called a commission. In paragraph two I and the state and local governments and recreational users have the same rights. Not sure how this is a "win".
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Jan 02, 2017 10:44 AM
Wendy....I believe the "coalition" that Tom is referring to is the one that was led by many First Nations (much like at Standing Rock) to present, advocate and achieve the first such designation made under the Antiquities Act...and I extend my bravos and kudos to them!!
You appear to be confusing the "coalition" organized to "win" designation of the Bears Ears NM with the proposed "commission" designed to manage the place....whether that ever comes to pass in anybodies guess!! My guess is that the prospects are not good at this point and the Tribes will have to fight like Hell to secure what they have achieved under a withering onslaught from their enemies within the traditional Euro-American dominionist culture!