Southeastern Utah’s canyons, mountains, and plateaus have been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. In 2016, Bears Ears National Monument was designated to safeguard one of the most significant cultural areas in the United States and honor tribal nations that have ancestral and contemporary connections to the region. President Barack Obama’s proclamation was in response to a request by a historic coalition of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni urging the U.S. government to conserve this living landscape for future generations and provide their nations with a meaningful voice in its management.
As the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition leaders said of the region when the monument was first designated:
“Our ancestors lived, hunted, gathered, prayed, and built civilizations here, and [Bears Ears] remains vital today as a place of subsistence and spirituality. Our oral traditions speak of this area, and of certain spiritual resources found only there. The protection of the Bears Ears cultural landscape is powerful medicine for healing—of the land, of plants and animals, and for all people. The Bears Ears National Monument will also ensure continued access to tribal ceremonies, firewood and herb collection, hunting, grazing and outdoor recreation.”
The original 1.35-million-acre national monument contained more than 100,000 cultural sites and boasted a number of geologic wonders, a diverse array of flora and fauna—including elk, mule deer, and Utah’s most imperiled herd of desert bighorn sheep—and world-class opportunities for outdoor recreation. An ethnographic study by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the nonprofit Native American organization Utah Diné Bikéyah showed that one cannot go more than an eighth of a mile in Bears Ears without encountering “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest.” The national monument is also home to one of the world’s richest troves of Triassic-period fossils.
Last year, millions of Americans joined the coalition in urging the Interior Department to keep Bears Ears and other national monuments intact. Despite the outpouring of support for the monument, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation in December 2017 reducing the monument’s size by 85 percent and fragmenting the remainder into two separate units, eroding important cultural and ecological connections across the broader landscape.
Even as the five tribes in the coalition, along with scientific organizations, conservation groups, and outdoor retailer Patagonia, are challenging the administration’s action in federal court, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) have drafted land use plans for the smaller monument. The agencies’ preferred proposal fails to sufficiently protect the objects of historic and scientific interest that the original Bears Ears National Monument was designated to safeguard, including Native American cultural sites, fossil beds, and a diverse array of flora, fauna, and well-preserved geologic sites. The land use plans also omit more than a million acres of the original monument that, according to the proclamation, also must be analyzed and managed to ensure conservation of their unique geologic, cultural, and ecological values.
The draft plans were released Aug. 17, and the public comment period on them ends Nov. 15. While the federal courts will ultimately determine the validity of President Trump’s proclamation, the BLM and USFS planning process could conclude before the court makes a decision.
The Pew Charitable Trusts has submitted comments urging the agencies to consider an alternative that would extend management for the entire Bears Ears National Monument to the original 2016 boundaries and prioritize consultation and meaningful engagement with the tribal nations that petitioned for the protection of the Bears Ears landscape.
Bears Ears National Monument, as it was initially envisioned by the tribal nations and President Obama, is a national treasure that should remain fully protected for future generations of Americans. To learn more and to submit a comment on the plan, please visit Pew’s Bears Ears action alert page.