On December 28, 2016, President Obama established a new Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Hip, hip hooray!
But don’t put away your “Protect Bears Ears” T-shirts just yet; anti-environmentalist Utah politicians are threatening to use litigation and legislation to try to undo the new monument.
Although San Juan County commissioners claim that the push for a monument came from “outside special interest groups,” in fact the plan originated with local Native American tribes seeking more influence over management of ancestral lands that are not located within current reservation boundaries. Utah Diné Bikéyah (a Navajo nonprofit organization) laid the groundwork with a mapping project asking tribal elders to identify sacred and culturally significant sites. The resulting proposal was endorsed by governments of five local tribes including Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni Pueblo, who coordinated as members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
Environmental groups and the outdoor industry supported the Bears Ears proposal, but were not leading the effort despite false claims by Utah Republicans that they were.
At first, the tribes hoped to negotiate a Bears Ears National Monument as part of Congressman Rob Bishop’s (R-Ut-1) Public Lands Initiative (PLI), but they withdrew from the process after Utah politicians shut them out of discussions and pretended that anti-monument individuals represented the tribes as a whole.
A letter sent from the Inter-Tribal Coalition on December 31, 2015 to Bishop and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3), complained, “Our strenuous efforts to participate in the PLI, and related proceedings before that over the course of the past six years, have been consistently stonewalled. We have never been taken seriously.” The letter concluded, “We don’t feel we can wait any longer before engaging with the Obama Administration concerning our proposal in the hope that they will advance our proposal via the Antiquities Act.“ In the end, tribal leaders did meet President Obama, and he did establish a 1.35 million acre monument.
The next fight for Bears Ears will be to keep the U.S. Congress and Republican-controlled Trump Administration from reducing the Monument size or eliminating it all together. Trump has nominated Ryan Zinke, a Republican congressman from Montana, as Secretary of the Interior. During his confirmation hearing, Zinke was asked about Bears Ears. He stated that he did not believe that the designation could be completely undone, but also said that the president has the authority to amend a monument. If Zinke is appointed, he said that he will visit Utah and make a recommendation to the president.
Proclamation: Establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument: blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/documents/files/ 2016bearsears.prc_.rel_.pdf; www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2017/public-lands-01-04-2017.php