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How environmentalists could do more for Bears Ears

On issues of industrial recreation, green groups say too little.

 

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He has published The Zephyr magazine in Utah since 1989.


I’m not a native-born Utahn, but I came here 40 years ago and made it my home. One of my first views of this remarkable land was of the Bears Ears area of southern Utah. It is sacred territory to me.

Had I not lived here all these decades but simply viewed the recent debate over the Bears Ears from afar, I’d probably be an enthusiastic supporter of its recent designation as a national monument. But I’ve been involved in these kinds of issues for decades, and the preservation of the Bears Ears is far more complicated than the monument’s architects will admit. I think there is a better way to protect the Bears Ears than its new monument designation, and a more honest way to still empower the Native Americans who deserve an integral role in protecting this landscape’s future.

Environmentalists declared that former President Barack Obama’s proclamation would safeguard the area’s 100,000 archaeological sites, via the 1906 Antiquities Act. But that implies that those sites were previously unprotected. All federal lands are already safeguarded by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979, which specifically addresses inadequacies in the original Antiquities Act legislation.

Environmentalists also warned that energy development — even on the Bears Ears — was imminent and inevitable without monument designation. Yet even the Bureau of Land Management’s studies note a low potential for commercially recoverable oil beneath the monument. There are indeed 2,000-plus active wells in San Juan County, but none of them currently lie under Bears Ears. Energy potential is distributed unevenly. The overwhelming number of producing wells can be found outside the monument, where production has continued for 60 years. 

The sun rises over Cedar Mesa and Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument covers thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance.
Bob WIck/BLM

Finally, environmentalists ballyhooed that “the proclamation elevates the voices of the Native Americans.” Leaders of Diné Bikeyah had expected that they “would actively co-manage these lands side-by-side with federal agencies.” But the proclamation reveals otherwise. It is the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior who “shall manage the monument through the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.” A Bears Ears Commission “will provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans.” Another advisory panel.

The government added, “The (BLM) and Forest Service will retain ultimate authority over the monument.” It’s impossible to recount all the broken promises made by the U.S. government to Native Americans — going back centuries — but this sounds like yet another deception. Native Americans have no legal authority to implement their preferences for the monument’s management. 

The unspoken threat to the monument, of course, is the impacts caused by developed tourism. Environmental organizations like the Southern Utah Wilderness Association and the Grand Canyon Trust haven’t dealt with this threat in two decades, although in 1998, the Trust’s Bill Hedden warned, “Everywhere we looked, natural resource professionals agreed that industrial-strength recreation holds more potential to disrupt natural processes on a broad scale than just about anything else.”

Runaway tourism was once a serious concern to environmentalists, but the issue was dropped to pursue alliances with the recreation industry. The tourism nightmare that now defines Moab still doesn’t raise the ire of Utah environmentalists. Last year, when overflow crowds lined the highway and forced Arches National Park to close its entrance station, most green groups failed to comment.

SUWA recently asked its members: “Which threats to the Red Rock worry you the most? The choices were “Utah’s land grab?” “Mining and drilling?” “Off-road vehicle abuse?” “Road proliferation?” The impacts from industrial tourism were not even listed as an option.

Do the remaining wildlands of southeast Utah deserve protection? Yes, absolutely. Are there other options to do the job besides the creation of a national monument? Consider these:

  • ŸStrictly enforce the archaeological protection law. A monument might generate more funding for increased staff, but only if it experiences massive increases in visitation and damage. So instead of building extravagant visitor centers and costly “improvements,” create an ”ARPA Protection Unit” of trained rangers from the Inter-Tribal Coalition, the BLM and Forest Service. The new rangers could target the areas most vulnerable to vandalism and protect Native American practices and rituals.Ÿ 
  • ŸSeek honest and enforceable ways to empower Native Americans. Toothless advisory panels are an insult.
  • Withdraw all oil and gas leases that are commercially marginal within the monument boundaries. End a pointless argument
  • ŸDemand that Utah environmentalists sever their ties to the relentless recreation economy. Tourism can be as devastating to natural values as energy development, and both must be scrutinized. Be consistent.

Unless environmentalists address these issues, we may someday discover — too late — that monument designation has helped to destroy the very qualities its supporters want to protect. Protecting the Bears Ears region is an absolute necessity. Turning it into a marketing tool to be packaged and sold is a sacrilege. Bear Ears deserves better.

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.