The Bears Ears area has a rich human history, incredible natural beauty and large untrammeled landscapes that deserve protection as a national monument by President Obama. And although it may surprise many people who have only recently heard about the national monument campaign, the desire to protect Bears Ears is not new; concerted efforts to permanently protect the area have been under way for 80 years.
The groundwork for protection began in 1906, when Congress passed the Antiquities Act in response to the looting and grave-robbing taking place in the Four Corners region, at places like Mesa Verde. The Ancestral Puebloan sites found there are intimately tied to the more than 100,000 archaeological sites found within the 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument proposal today.
Despite identical problems of looting, vandalism and grave-robbing that happened at Mesa Verde, the problems at Bears Ears have only grown. Already in 2016, five major incidents of looting and vandalism are under investigation by the Bureau of Land Management in the Bears Ears region.
Specific efforts to protect Bears Ears date back as far as 1907, when Dean Byron Cummings of the University of Utah led an expedition into the Bears Ears area. His expedition’s research, along with support from a local Blanding visionary named Zeke Johnson, resulted in the designation of Natural Bridges National Monument in 1908. This designation, however, was based largely on geologic and scenic merit.
Subsequently, the Manti-La Sal National Forest boundaries were extended “to afford [the Ute Mountain Utes] what protection the forest service could give them,” according to J.C. Brown, an engineer who accompanied Cummings on the expedition.
Brown had a good relationship with Jim Mike, a Ute/Paiute living in the area. It became personally important to Brown that the forest boundaries be extended after he asked Jim Mike why the Utes wanted to continue living in the area. Jim Mike responded, “My papa sit down here, my grandpapa sit down here, I want to sit down here.”
So, while Natural Bridges National Monument was established in honor of unique and astounding geological spans, the Manti-La Sal National Forest extension was established to protect the traditional hunting, gathering and agricultural practices of Native Americans who call the area home.
The Ute Mountain Ute and San Juan Southern Paiute roamed the Bears Ears region until 1923, when they were imprisoned and forced onto their current reservation lands, including those surrounded by the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
The baton for protection was picked up again in the 1930s, when Harry A. Aurand, an oil company executive with a soft spot for the region, spearheaded an initiative to designate a monument twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. This landscape-scale effort would have covered most of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area, in addition to the majority of the current Bears Ears proposal.
While Aurand’s proposal did not make it to the president’s office, a proposal for a smaller, 53,000-acre national monument that would have surrounded Arch Canyon did. In 1940, the draft proclamation for this smaller national monument rose all the way up to President Roosevelt’s desk. Unfortunately, Pearl Harbor was bombed and all of the efforts of the previous decade to secure protection for the Bears Ears region were swallowed by efforts to win World War II.
It was not until 1962 that a call to protect the area would rise again. Under Utah Sen. Frank Moss’ leadership, the boundaries of Natural Bridges National Monument were expanded. Sen. Moss also worked with former U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to establish Canyonlands National Park.
The original Canyonlands proposal was nearly 1 million acres and had significant overlap with the northern portion of the Bears Ears proposal. Due to pressure from opposition groups, unfortunately, Canyonlands National Park was reduced to only a quarter of its originally proposed size – 257,000 acres – when it was established in 1964. (Congress later increased the size of Canyonlands to today’s 330,000 acres.)
Piecemeal protective measures within Bears Ears followed in subsequent decades, but the conservation values within Bears Ears arguably remain the greatest of any unprotected unit of public land in the United States. President Obama has the opportunity to protect Bears Ears for all tribes, for all citizens, and for all time and he should do so before he leaves office.
While we may not recover what has been lost over the past 100 years due to looting, vandalism and mining, we can protect the globally significant cultural assets that remain. Utahns have led every effort to protect this region over the past century, and it is no surprise that the Native American elders and leaders from San Juan County may finally succeed where others have failed.
Mr. President, please finish the job.
Isobel Lingenfelter is a community outreach coordinator with Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that works with Native Americans on land conservation and land management.