Spinning yarns about Bears Ears


Nathan Nielson’s opinion piece (“Leviathan in the desert,HCN, 10/31/16) is made from whole cloth. The yarns Nielson spins are of “federal absorption”; vandalism run amok; neglect and economic crisis; future limitations placed on the gathering of wood, herbs and piñon nuts; a lack of support for a Bears Ears National Monument; and a coming massive restriction of livestock grazing as at the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 

They are all myths. National monuments can be designated only on federal lands already owned by all Americans — the federal government is not “absorbing” any land. Nielson 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 factual basis. Far from a crisis, economies have grown around Grand Staircase, and business and tax receipts are on the rise. The Escalante Chamber of Commerce, on its website, touts all the tourist accommodations and recreational opportunities and brags in gold letters on the masthead: “HEART OF THE GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE MONUMENT.”

Nielson states, too, that roads cannot be graded, vegetation cannot be maintained, and springs cannot be cleaned in national monuments, but 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 Obama. Some 220,000 people have signed petitions in support of a Bears Ears National Monument; the Salt Lake Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other papers have editorialized for it; and its protection holds the support of more than 300 sovereign Native American Tribes.

The author laments a 31 percent reduction in grazing at Grand Staircase — a nonexistent “fact.” The Bureau of Land Management says that permitted animal unit months (one AUM is one cow/calf pair or five sheep for one month) were 77,200 when the Grand Staircase was designated. 76,900 are available today, even after thousands of AUMs were willingly sold by ranchers. This means livestock grazing has actually increased in eligible parts of the monument, despite a decade of crippling drought.

Nielson is wildly misleading in his faith in Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative (PLI). It absolutely will not pass in the few legislative days remaining in the 114th Congress. He flagrantly mischaracterizes it. Nielson writes that 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 seats 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 extraction-heavy 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 five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni; their vision and participation will ensure 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 of our monuments or parks, has inestimable worth. Protect it now, or it will be a main target of the Trump administration. 

Charles Wilkinson
Moses Lasky Professor of Law, University of Colorado

Boulder, Colorado

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