Once again President Obama has put himself on the right side of history by acting on the call from tribal nations to protect the Bears Ears as a national monument. This designation is a fitting way to recognize an important piece of our full American story, protecting Native American sacred sites, Mormon pioneer artifacts and an incredible natural area. Thank you, President Obama, for protecting this heritage as a national treasure for all.
Until now, Bears Ears was arguably the most significant cultural landscape in the United States left unprotected. Field work had documented the existence of more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites linked to the history of the Navajo, Ute, Hopi and Pueblo people who considered this region their homeland. The 1.35 million acres of America’s public lands south and east of Canyonlands National Park protected by presidential proclamation contain prehistoric hunting camps, pit-house burrows, cliff dwellings and ornate petroglyph and pictograph panels that record thousands of years of human history.
Historically, inadequate monitoring and insufficient funding had resulted in damage to these archaeological treasures from illegal looting, mismanaged recreational use and inappropriate energy development. The Antiquities Act was enacted in 1906 to provide protection for objects of historic and scientific interest from looting or destruction. The designation of the Bears Ears National Monument provides the means to protect this national treasure. Just as significantly, the action taken means that these lands will stay publicly owned, lessening any threat they will be transferred to the state of Utah to be sold-off and privatized with access prohibited.
Arriving at this historic moment took years of public dialogue and open collaboration revealing a broad consensus in Utah and the rest of America that the lands in question needed conserving. The president’s action came only after the final version of Congressman Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative bill (which received a tepid response in Grand County) failed to achieve that objective.
Perhaps the most remarkable event along the way was the formation of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC). In a July 2015 meeting on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, the BEITC formally organized with representatives from the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Uintah and Ouray Utes. Getting these tribes to unite behind Bears Ears galvanized support from the Rio Grande Pueblos and the National Congress of American Indians. With such widespread backing, Native Americans for the first time requested that a president of the United States use the Antiquities Act to protect and preserve the landscape of their culture and history, the land of their ancestors. The proclamation by President Obama honors that request.
Importantly, the proclamation specifies that the tribes will have a role in the management of the new monument, with a commission made up of officers from each of the five tribes in the Bears Ears Coalition providing “guidance and recommendations.” The managing agencies, in turn, are
to “carefully and fully consider integrating the traditional and historical knowledge” of the tribes into their decision-making. The proclamation allows for the continued “collection of medicines, berries, and other vegetation, forest products, and firewood for personal noncommercial use” by Native American tribes. This provision was expected, but opponents of the Bear Ears erroneously spread fear among the various tribes by insisting that these uses would not be allowed.
How ironic that only four years ago, a newly elected Grand County Council, without any public input, sent to Washington a letter opposing the establishment of any new national monument in the Greater Canyonlands area. That action was the catalyst for residents of Grand County to demand a more open vetting of the Public Lands Initiative, to scuttle joining the Six-County Infrastructure Coalition, and to elect newer councils dominated by public lands champions. Now we can actually raise our voices to the current council asking that it send a thank-you letter to President Obama for designating the Bears Ears.
At the very least, we are all ancestors of the people who will benefit from this proclamation.