New National Monument Proposal for the Bears Ears

The proposed Bears Ears national Monument would protect over 100,000 archaeological sites
The proposed Bears Ears national Monument would protect over 100,000 archaeological sites

A coalition of Native Americans has formed an Inter-Tribal Coalition to promote the designation of 1.9 million acres in Utah as a National Monument. The area contains granaries, rock art, burial sites, and many other important natural and historic sites. So its not surprising then that 26 tribes support protecting the area, which gets its name from these the two buttes which resemble a large bear. This area was described beautifully in Craig Childs’ excellent work on archaeology and heritage in the four corners region. Designation of the massive area would protect scores of ancient sites, burial sites, and pieces of rock art. An area which has suffered repeatedly at the hands of amateur archaeologists and later illicit looting.

President Obama seems to be taking a more open approach to the designation of the lands than Bill Clinton took when designating the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. A July public hearing allowed members of the public a chance to voice their opinion to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for nearly four hours. Writing about that meeting for High Country News, Jonathan Thompson reported:

Today’s crowd contains as many brown faces as it does white ones, a refreshing change from other such gatherings in the past. The land in question is an important part of contemporary Ute and Navajo history, and members of those tribes continue to use it for wood-, herb- and piñon-gathering. The pueblos here — including the Bluff Great House that’s just a stone’s throw from today’s hearing — were inhabited on-and-off from the 9th to the 13th centuries by the ancestors of today’s Zuni, Hopi and Rio Grande Pueblo people. And the Bears Ears and other landmarks on this landscape are considered to be important religious sites.

That, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye tells Jewell in the hearing, is why his tribal government supports a national monument. “We relate to them (the Bears Ears) like an Anglo relates to a family member,” he says. Begaye’s tribe, along with the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ute tribe, overcame historic antagonism to join together to form the coalition that’s pushing for the monument. That’s unprecedented, as is their proposed management structure: a committee of eight, including one representative from each tribe, and one representative each from the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. 

“It’s been far too long that us Natives have not been at the table,” says Malcolm Lehi, the Ute Mountain Ute council representative from the White Mesa community, just up the road from Bluff. “Here we are today inviting ourselves to the table. We’re making history.” 

The proposal and coalition has the support of six of the seven Navajo chapters in Utah, at least two-dozen additional tribes and the National Congress of American Indians, along with a host of environmental groups and more than 700 archaeologists.

But there is a long history of entrenched private property owners in the southwest that often resist these efforts, as demonstrated by Utah’s two members of the House:

Republican Utah U.S. Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop (who alsoopposes a proposed national monument in Maine’s Katahdin region) have been telling interested constituents for three years that they’ve been drafting legislation to protect Bears Ears, but they failed to introduce legislation containing specific boundaries and provisions.

It became increasingly clear that the congressmen, who hold key committee chairmanships, aimed to run out the clock on the Obama administration’s ability to use the Antiquities Act to create a national monument.

Apparently convinced that such an action was under serious consideration, however, Bishop and Chaffetz finally introduced their bill last week, just two days before Interior Secretary Sally Jewell held a public hearing on Bears Ears in Bluff, Utah, that was attended by some 2,000 people, a clear majority of whom supported a monument, according to officials from the Conservation Lands Foundation. Several provisions of the bill would eviscerate any serious concept of protection. Among them:

The bill would split Bears Ears in two, leaving many important cultural areas unprotected, and give the tribes too little voice in managing sites sacred to their heritage.

The bill would mandate that grazing be permitted in fragile archaeological areas and give land managers no discretion to reduce it even when resources were being damaged.

The “National Conservation Areas” in the bill include loopholes that confuse the meaning of “conservation” and keep managers from prohibiting some uses that have been historically damaging to cultural resources.

With the obvious intention of weakening standards for wilderness areas, the bill includes provisions in direct conflict with the federal Wilderness Act that could affect areas besides Bears Ears.

  1. Richard Moe, Commentary: Republican indifference puts sacred Native American land in Utah at risk, Portland Press Herald (Jul. 21–21, 2016), http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/21/commentary-republican-indifference-puts-sacred-native-american-land-in-utah-at-risk/.
  2. Jonathan Thompson, Emotions run high over monument designation in Utah, High Country News (Jul. 19–19, 2016), https://www.hcn.org/articles/emotions-run-high-at-bears-ears-national-monument-hearing-in-utah.

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