President Barack Obama on Wednesday designated the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, culminating an eight-decade-long effort to increase protections on the ecologically diverse, archaeologically rich, canyon-cut landscape that is the ancestral homeland of several southwestern tribes. The decision is being heralded as not only a victory for the conservation community, but also for tribal sovereignty.
The most recent push to protect the region’s environmental and cultural resources was spearheaded by an intertribal coalition made up of descendants of people who have inhabited the area at different times over the last 3,000 years. They were backed by environmentalists, archaeologists and members of the outdoor recreation community. Yet their effort also encountered bitter opposition from many locals, including some Navajos, Utes and Mormon descendants of the first white people to settle this corner of Utah, now one of the hot spots of the Sagebrush Rebellion.
The proclamation, written in descriptive and even flowery language, creates a monument on 1.35 million acres of public land currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. Those agencies will jointly oversee the new monument, with “guidance and recommendations” from a commission made up of elected officers from each of the coalition’s five tribes: Hopi Nation, Zuni Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray. The agencies shall “carefully and fully consider integrating the traditional and historical knowledge” of the commission into management decisions. This gives tribes an unprecedented amount of say over their ancestral lands that lie in the public domain yet outside the boundaries of their reservations.
In his 1943 book, One Man’s West, author David Lavender describes what is now Bears Ears National Monument as “a million and a quarter acres of staggering desolation between the San Juan and Colorado rivers, a vast triangle of land that even today is not completely mapped.” Several years earlier, the area had been included in a proposed, but failed, 4-million-acre Escalante National Monument. In the years since, as conservationists have tried various tactics to protect it — most significantly with the Red Rock Wilderness Act — the same landscape has not only been mapped, but also spiderwebbed with roads and ATV trails. YouTubers, Facebookers and geo-taggers have exposed once-secret places to the masses. Archaeological sites have been looted by pothunters or spiteful vandals or scraped clean of artifacts by oblivious souvenir collectors, while cryptobiotic crusts have been trampled and tracked by wayward hikers and off-road-vehicle riders.
Monument proponents hope that the designation will bring more resources to the area in order to more effectively enforce existing laws, shore up regulations and to educate the public about the importance of the cultural resources. It will also give Pueblo people the opportunity to tell the story of their ancestors, who inhabited the Bears Ears landscape for more than 1,000 years.
Critics of the monument designation have portrayed it as a “land grab” on par with then-President Bill Clinton’s 1996 creation of the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the west of here. The comparison doesn’t hold up, however. Grand Staircase-Escalante was devised so secretly, and hoisted on the public so unexpectedly, that even conservationists were miffed. The Bears Ears process, on the other hand, was initiated transparently by local Navajo community leaders years ago. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell spent days in the region listening to concerns and exploring the sites that were included in the coalition’s proposal. And the Obama administration waited until an alternate proposal, the Public Lands Initiative, failed in Congress before making the designation.
The details of the designation suggest that the administration took the opposition’s concerns to heart, and were guided in part by the Public Lands Initiative. The designated monument is smaller by 600,000 acres than the coalition’s proposal. In fact, its boundaries more closely follow those proposed in the PLI, which would have put 1.4 million acres within two National Conservation Areas and a separate wilderness area.
These areas were included in the inter-tribal coalition's proposal, but were left out of the final monument designation:
• The Abajo Mountains, a.k.a. Blue Mountains, which rise up just west of Monticello, the county seat, fall outside the monument boundaries. Locals use the mountains for grazing cattle, gathering firewood, recreation and as their primary source of municipal water.
• The lower reach of Allen Canyon, west of Blanding, which contains Ute Mountain Ute land and grazing allotments, is not part of the monument. (The archaeologically significant upper reaches of the canyon are within the monument).
• Black Mesa, which rises up between Cottonwood Wash and Butler Wash, was cut out of the monument (exactly as it was cut out of the National Conservation Areas in the PLI).
• A large, arcing strip of land adjacent to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and surrounding Mancos Mesa was cut out of the proposal. Wingate Mesa, Nokai Dome and the Daneros uranium mine, which is looking to expand, will not be included within the national monument, giving Daneros operators plenty of elbow-room to enlarge the mine. (Mancos Mesa is included in the new monument).
• Raplee Anticline and most of Lime Ridge between Mexican Hat and Comb Ridge are excluded from the monument. This has been the site of some oil development and limestone quarrying.
These significant concessions to the opposition, along with language in the proclamation requiring monument managers to preserve access to Native Americans for traditional uses such as gathering firewood, herbs and piñon nuts, may soothe some of the local tension regarding the monument. The hardcore ideologues, however, are not appeased. The Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands issued a statement comparing the designation to “the unilateral tyranny exercised by the King of England against the American colonies two and a half centuries ago,” and pledged to do what it can to “overturn this act of political cronyism.” They will be joined by Utah’s congressional delegation and perhaps the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has pledged to overturn all of Obama’s executive orders.
That won't be easy — a president has never reversed a national monument. Besides, local opposition often dies down once monument status starts to draw more tourism dollars, and once it becomes apparent that a monument will not, in fact, lock up the land or kill the local economy. With the exception of the Aneth oil field and the Daneros uranium mine — neither of which are in the monument — the extraction industries in San Juan County were long ago wiped out by market forces. The only existing economy threatened by the Bears Ears National Monument is the pilfering and selling of antiquities.
“Mormon history, the Constitution and laws, and white man's history are written on paper,” said Octavius Seowtewa, of Zuni, in reaction to the designation. “Our history—the Native history—is written in stone on canyon walls. We celebrate knowing our history at Bears Ears will be protected for future generations, forever.”
This article has been updated to clarify the boundaries of the Public Lands Initiative, which includes not only National Conservation areas, but also a wilderness area.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is currently writing a book about the Gold King Mine spill. Follow @jonnypeace