Trump administration trades heritage for short term gain

Sites like the Cedar Mesa Ruins in Bears Ears National Monument are at risk with the proposed reduction in the national monument

Conservation is not a conservative principle anymore. Today President Trump signed presidential proclamations that will take the unprecedented step of dramatically shrinking two national monuments in Utah. The moves are largely seen as favors to Senator Orin Hatch, a frequent Trump apologist. This part of the American West frequently suffers from antiquities looting on the part of local residents, and the designation of these monuments was an important step to reduce the destruction and looting of these sites. A step that the Trump administration now is attempting to undo.

The reductions in these national monuments are a seldom-used step, one few other presidents have considered since the Antiquities Act was created in 1906. The New York Times reported that reductions have occurred before—Woodrow Wilson reduced the size of Mount Olympus, and Franklin Roosevelt reduced the size of the Grand Canyon monument.

Trump’s attempted reduction in size is not yet known, and will have to survive likely legal challenges, but mark an unfortunate step away from preservation of natural and cultural heritage. Instead the short-sighted move seems to prioritize development, mineral extraction, and ranching. Tribal groups are likely to be impacted most directly, and as a result some have already announced plans to challenge the reduction in court. The Navajo Nation in a statement declared:

The decision to reduce the size of the [Bears Ears] Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bear Ears . . . . The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.

 

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: Continue reading “New National Monument Proposal for the Bears Ears”