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Know the West

Bears Ears: Correcting an off-base argument

In the debate over a national monument, don’t be swayed by myths.


Nathan Nielson’s opinion piece, “A National Monument is a Heavy-handed Solution for Bears Ears” (HCN 10/31/16) is made from whole cloth. 

The yarns Neilson spins are of “federal absorption,” of vandalism run amok; of neglect and economic crisis; of future limitations placed on the gathering of wood, herbs and piñon nuts; of a lack of support for a Bears Ears National Monument; and of a coming massive restriction of livestock grazing as at the nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. 


They are all myths. National monuments can only be designated on federal lands already owned by all Americans – the federal government is not “absorbing” any land. Neilson falsely reports all 1,400 cases of visitor contact with law enforcement in 2015 at Grand Staircase-Escalante as cases of “rock defacement” with no backing whatsoever. Far from crisis, economies have grown around Grand Staircase, and business and tax receipts are on the rise.

Neilson states too, that roads cannot be graded, vegetation cannot be maintained, and springs cannot be cleaned in national monuments. These activities occur regularly at our national monuments. Wood will be gathered, herbs collected, and ceremonies performed at Bears Ears, all protected in the monument proclamation as they have been in all recent monuments designated by President Barack Obama. Some 220,000 people have signed petitions in support of designating Bears Ears a national monument, and its protection holds the support of elected officials and 26 sovereign Native American Tribes. 

Utah Juniper at Bears Ears in San Juan County, Utah.
Brewbooks/Flickr user

The author laments a 31 percent reduction in grazing at Grand Staircase – a non-existent “fact.” The Bureau of Land Management says that permitted Animal Unit Months (AUMs – a cow and a calf pair) were 77,200 when the Staircase was designated. Today, 76,900 are available, even after thousands of AUMs were willingly sold by ranchers. This means livestock grazing has actually increased in other parts of the monument, despite a decade of crippling drought.

Neilson is wildly misleading in his faith in Utah Republican House Rep. Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative. It absolutely will not pass in the 16 legislative days remaining in the 114th Congress. He flagrantly mischaracterizes it. Neilson writes PLI is “…a locally driven process designed to balance the interests of ranchers, energy developers, environmentalists, hikers and tribes.” But documented history shows that the last three groups were denied a seat at the table in crafting the PLI. The legislative effort was dominated by the mineral interests and ranchers. Bears Ears would be ruined forever if the PLI were to pass. 

The true promise of Bears Ears National Monument lies in protecting forever this wondrous red rock landscape. It is coupled with the profound gift offered by the tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition – that Native American Traditional Knowledge is shared, and that Indigenous people reclaim their rightful authority to help manage their ancestral lands. Bears Ears, which will become one of the most compelling and distinctive monuments or parks, has inestimable worth. Protect it now or it will be a main target of the Trump Administration. 

Charles Wilkinson, Distinguished Professor and Moses Lasky Professor of Law at University of Colorado, is the author of many books including “Fire on the Plateau: Conquest and Endurance in the American Southwest.”