Why President Obama needs to designate a Bears Ears National Monument

“People have always stereotyped and cartooned Blanding in an unfair way. I get tired of redneck knuckleheads cartooning the environmentalists, and I get tired of it in the other direction, too.” So said Winston Hurst, a native of Blanding and esteemed southeastern Utah archaeologist, while I was interviewing him for my story on the fight for a Bears Ears National Monument. “There’s not a lot of communication, not a lot of understanding.”

He could have been speaking about this whole, polarized world. Yesterday, apparently due to this same lack of communication and understanding, America elected a self-styled cartoon character to be president. Under this new administration, and the judges it appoints, tribal sovereignty and environmental regulations will undoubtedly suffer. We can, and will, fight back. But in the meantime, President Barack Obama has two more months to shore up his legacy on these issues, to build it up as much as possible to at least make more work for those intent on tearing it down.

He can start by invoking the Antiquities Act and designating the Bears Ears National Monument for the long beleaguered, often vandalized, federally managed mesas, canyons, plateaus and cultural resources of southeastern Utah.

A national monument designation is far from the ideal solution. There’s no guarantee — particularly under a Trump administration — that it will bring more resources to protect this special place. Hurst worries that a top-down dictate like this will feed into the “gut conservatism” of locals, and provoke a Bundy-like (or Trump-like) backlash. It could result in more polarization on the ground here, as did the 1996 Clinton designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and push more support to extreme-right politicians like Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Mike Lee, not to mention Donald Trump. Tens of thousands of archaeological sites here could be in the crosshairs of the backlash, as ideologues engage in vandalism and looting as political protest. “The far right has lethally turned every top-down decision into a club to beat us over the head with,” said Hurst. 

And yet, this is no Grand Staircase-Escalante, hefted on the public in secret. It’s a last ditch, transparent effort to protect a place, proposed in the wake of the inability to do so in more “organic” ways. Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative appeared to be an admirable attempt to come up with a compromise. But participants were marginalized, and in the end, Bishop himself dismantled the local compromises, imperfect as they were, and instead introduced a more polarizing bill, and one doomed to fail.

Amidst all of the noise of polarization and false dichotomy, something often gets lost: Bears Ears is not a matter of outsiders pushing something onto the locals. Yes, outside greens have long tried to get more protection, via wilderness designation, for the Bears Ears area. And yes, environmental groups from outside the region are lending strong support to the pro-monument effort. But the seeds of the current proposal were planted and nourished by local Navajos and brought to fruition by a coalition of tribes that, by any reasonable standard, are “local.” They are local by residence to the Four Corners Country. And they are local, through ancestry, to what’s become known as the Bears Ears region. The roots of the Pueblo people go back more than 2000 years in this place. The Navajos and Utes were here for at least three centuries prior to the arrival of the first white settlers. Holy sites of all the tribes are scattered across the landscape. If that’s not local, then I don’t know what is.

The monument, as proposed, would treat those tribes’ governments for what they are, sovereign entities, and give them a voice in how the feds manage this land, their own ancestral homeland, and in how to protect the cultural resources upon it. It would grant a sort of tribal sovereignty — of justice, really, and healing — that’s been a long time coming. It would also give locals more control of federal land, something the same Sagebrush Rebels who oppose the monument have been grappling for for years.

This is not a “land grab.” All of the 1.9 million acres under the proposal are already managed by the federal government. Any private or tribal or state land will retain its status under the monument, unless the owners willingly swap the inholdings for equally valuable land elsewhere. It will not deprive people of access. One can roam freely on foot at both Grand Staircase-Escalante to the west of the proposed monument, and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument to the east. Traditional uses, such as firewood-, piñon- and herb-gathering will continue to be allowed (though the free-for-all blazing of “social roads” through forests to get to the wood will, hopefully, be restricted in ways to alleviate the damage it causes).

A monument will limit new uranium mining, oil and gas drilling and new grazing leases, but existing, valid rights will remain in place. Whereas the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation killed a potential giant coal mine, Bears Ears would not stifle any projects currently in the works. Thus, opponents’ claims that a monument would somehow destroy the local extractive economy are simply incorrect; the markets did that long ago, when the feds stopped propping up the uranium industry.

A national monument will not turn Blanding/Bluff/Monticello into the next Moab. Moab is overrun by extreme recreationalists not because of its proximity to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, but because it is surrounded by relatively unregulated public land that lends itself to mountain biking, jeeping, BASE jumping and the like. A monument would probably restrict these activities, and put more enforcement in place to keep them under control. If anything, that would discourage, rather than attract extreme recreation.

Nor will the Bears Ears be plastered with parking lots and paved trails leading to all of its “secret treasures.” Facilities instead will be placed at the areas that are already overrun and are being impacted by visitors, funneling the masses to those places and leaving the secret ones to the locals. Yes, Grand Staircase-Escalante gets far more visitors now than it did back in the early 90s, before it was designated a monument. But the same can be said for Cedar Mesa, within the proposed Bears Ears. More people are drawn to these places, and guided to them by the internet, whether they’re monuments or not.

In spite all of this, there’s still strong local opposition, among both whites and Utes and Navajos, and it shouldn’t be discounted. The monument proposal is for a vast amount of land, 1.9 million acres, which leaves ample room to adjust boundaries as a nod to those opponents. Early versions of the proposal, for example, didn’t include the Abajo Mountains; they could be left out. Even Indian Creek, on the northern end of the proposed monument, could be broken off, leaving it to become a National Conservation Area sometime in the future via another means. It’s not that these aren’t important areas, but the density of archaeological sites is highest on the southern portion of the proposed monument, and it is the most threatened.

“My preference is that everyone goes home, tends their garden, and leaves it alone,” Hurst told me. “I just want people to stop yelling at each other.” I think a lot of us, worn down by the sickness that has infected our politics and national discourse, feel that way right now. But if ever there was a time to not sit back and let the world sort things out, this is it. If ever there was a time for the healing that a new approach to managing and interpreting the Bears Ears landscape, this is it. 



  1. This posting should be communicated to both sides of this controversial issue. I have heard from people with different sides and I think this clearly addresses some of the misconceptions that are out there. Thanks Amanda for sharing this well written post by Riveroflostsouls.


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