The Battle For Bears Ears: Preserving a Utah Treasure

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.

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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.