115-miles south of Moab is a land revered by generations of climbers, hikers, and adventurers. It’s a land known as the Bears Ears, a series of buttes that constitute jeep trails, sacred archeological sites, unique sandstone formations, and the cherished climbing walls of Indian Creek. Not only loved by outdoorsman, the Bears Ears is also an important area to the Navajo, Ute, and Pueblo Native American tribes. Excavations here have revealed rock art, pottery, and cliff dwellings, documenting over a millennium of human habitation. The Bears Ears are loved, but unprotected, and they are at a pivotal crossroads.
Fighting to Become a National Monument
The Bears Ears have not been declared a national monument, leading to limited protection, and open to mineral extraction, and oil and gas development as well as the looting of archeological sites and defacing Native American wall art.
In 2013, Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz (R, Utah) introduced the Utah Public Lands Initiative, offering various proposals, which was “rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist and make Utah a better place to live, work, and visit.” Some of the proposals suggested declaring a National Conservation Area, while others wanted to give the area full protection as a National Monument.
The difference between a National Conservation Area and a National Monument is a little blurred. The president, using Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1906, may only declare a National Monument by presidential proclamation. A National Conservation Area is formed under the BLM’s Landscape Conservation System of 2000. National Monuments fall under the administration of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, while National Conservation Areas are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Opposition to the Bill
The opposition claims that a majority of the tribes who support a monument are from mostly out-of-state, including California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. On January 20th, 2016, Chaffetz and Bishop released a long-awaited Discussion Draft, which would take into account all the meetings with various tribal councils and BLM authorities.
In response to the bill, which some tribes felt that the bill didn’t include full representation by Native Americans, the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition formed between five tribes with the goal of receiving full national monument designation, including petitioning President Barack Obama and members of Congress. The tribes felt that although the Utah Public Lands Initiative aimed to protect both commercial and Native American interests, it didn’t do enough to preserve key archeological sites and wildlife refuges.
Furthermore, the Inter-tribal coalition claimed that the bill puts limitations on the 1906 Antiquities Act, and placed emphasis on federal authorities and not elevating the voices of Native Americans as equal.
Use of the Land for Natural Resources
One of the biggest threats to the Bears Ears area is concentrated around the Cedar and Tank Mesas, which was recently approved as an ‘Energy Zone’ by the Utah legislature, who declared that the ‘highest and best use’ of Cedar Mesa and San Rafael Swell was for grazing, mineral extraction, and oil exploration. The Bears Ears Coalition contends that they are not against energy development; they feel that the land is too greatly valuable to deface.
Furthermore, the Bears Ears are unprotected from vandalism and looting. Rock art has been vandalized by graffiti, and campers tore down a hogan, a 19th century Navajo home, in 2012 for firewood.
This year, the movement towards creating a National Monument received a boost with endorsements from The Salt Lake Tribune and Los Angeles Times. The Tribune stated “…preservation is, in so many cases, in the long-term interests of Utahns, both native and newcomer.”
The Outdoor Industry is Stepping Up
The outdoor company Patagonia, who released a film in collaboration with climber Josh Ewing, has further supported the movement, taking the viewpoint of the thousands of climbers who inhabit Indian Creek. After moving to Bluff, Utah, Ewing saw the effect of energy companies, and used his influence to push for conservation.
This summer, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell plans to tour Utah, and while she did not mention Bears Ears by name, Jewell stated the intention to protect sites that honor heritage and culture as well as exploring better planning for developing resources. In the same tour, Jewell will also explore the correlation between the strength of outdoor recreation and a strong economy.
The support for creating a National Monument has grown to overwhelming levels. After back and forth debate between the outdoor community, tribal leaders, and the private sector, it’s now up to Washington to make the final decision.