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Know the West

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.