« Return to this article

Know the West

Was the Bears Ears designation a victory?

Despite compromise, the controversial monument’s opposition is riled up.


On the eve of the new year, President Barack Obama designated the Bears Ears National Monument — culminating an eight-decade-long struggle to preserve this ecologically diverse, archaeologically rich landscape in southeastern Utah, the ancestral homeland of several Southwestern tribes.

The Dec. 28 decision is being heralded as a victory not only for the conservation community, but also for the five tribes that proposed the monument and will play a role in managing it. Yet even its most ardent opponents — mostly Utahns who regard Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act as federal overreach — got something in return: More than a half-million acres in the original proposal were excluded from the final boundaries.

Bears Ears National Monument covers 1.35 million acres in San Juan County currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The two agencies will jointly manage the new monument, with “guidance and recommendations” from a commission made up of elected officers from the Hopi Nation, Zuni Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray. The monument proclamation goes on to note: “The traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans whose ancestors inhabited this region … is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come.”

Click to view larger.
Stephanie Smith/Grand Canyon Trust

This emphasis on Native American cultures and values, says University of Colorado, Boulder, law professor Charles Wilkinson, promises to make the new monument “one of the most distinctive and uplifting landscapes in America’s public land systems.”

The area is home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, mostly remnants of the ancestral Puebloan culture, who inhabited this landscape for at least 2,000 years. Many of them have suffered from illegal pothunting, vandalism and artifact collecting. Monument supporters hope that the designation will bring the resources needed to enforce existing laws, shore up regulations and educate the public about the importance of these cultural resources.

Opponents often cite the controversial designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument west of here, created by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996. But a better comparison might involve the Canyon of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado, also given monument status by Clinton in 2000. “Canyons of the Ancients was perhaps the first to -explicitly recognize that ruins do not tell the entire story — that ancients lived in, hunted, gathered and raised crops, and developed water and religious sites throughout the larger landscape,” says Bruce Babbitt, Clinton’s Interior secretary. “Bears Ears brings this concept to fruition in an even larger -landscape.”

In response to stiff resistance from local politicians and citizens, Obama pared down the original 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears proposal by 550,000 acres, cutting out the Abajo Mountains, most of the Raplee Anticline and Lime Ridge, and a swath of land near the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado rivers where uranium is being mined. The final boundaries are closer to those in the Public Lands Initiative bill that Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop tried and failed to get through Congress in 2016. That bill would have put essentially the same lands into two national conservation areas and a wilderness area.

The monument’s proclamation preserves traditional Native American access to firewood, herbs and piñon nuts — a major concern for those Navajos and Utes who resisted the designation. Existing mineral rights and grazing rights will be preserved, private lands will not be impacted, and the feds will work to swap state lands within monument boundaries for parcels elsewhere. Though the 1996 Grand Staircase-Escalante designation effectively killed a proposed coal mine, no such developments are on the table at Bears Ears.

The Cedar Mesa Citadel Ruins are one of thousands of archaeological sites in the 1.35 million acres of land now designated as Bears Ears National Monument that include rock art, cliff dwellings and ceremonial kivas.
Bureau of Land Management

Nevertheless, the Utah Legislature’s public lands committee denounced the designation as “unilateral tyranny,” and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called it an “attack on an entire way of life.” That’s despite the fact that the only existing economic activity likely to be hindered by the monument is the pilfering and black-market sale of antiquities. “Some of the Utah delegation don’t care about the actual proclamation,” says John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “They only care about confrontational politics and clichéd -symbolism.”

Utah lawmakers pledged to urge the president-elect to overturn the designation. Yet no president has ever tried to abolish a monument; it’s not clear that it’s even possible. “Existing law tells us that Trump has little or no ability to alter this monument,” says Wilkinson. Even if challenged, “there is an overwhelming likelihood that courts will hew to existing law that the Antiquities Act allows presidents to create monuments but not to overturn them.”

Hatch wants Congress to ditch the Antiquities Act altogether, or follow Wyoming’s example and exempt Utah from it. Since the law’s 1906 passage, however, all but three presidents have used it, protecting tens of millions of acres in extraordinary landscapes like Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and Zion. It’s hard to imagine any president willingly giving up so much power and legacy-building -potential.

Meanwhile, environmentalists, archaeologists, and tribes are prepared to fight to keep Bears Ears — and other monuments — intact. But for now, they’re also celebrating. “Mormon history, the Constitution and laws, and white man’s history are written on paper,” said Octavius Seowtewa of Zuni. “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.”

Contributing editor Jonathan Thompson is writing a book about Colorado’s Gold King Mine spill.