President Trump announced on Monday a plan to dramatically shrink the boundaries of two national monuments in Utah: Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Bears Ears National Monument, the latter created by President Obama one year ago this month. Trump’s action marks an important milestone in the story of these two red buttes which has become an outsized symbol for a slew of Western issues.
To say the Bears Ears National Monument is controversial is an understatement.
“There are parts that are worth preserving but 1.35 million acres, bigger than the state of Delaware, are you kidding me?”
That was former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) on Fox News, reacting to the designation last year.
“It’s one of the biggest land grabs in the history of the United States,” he continued, “And it was done, this midnight monument, in the waning hours of the Obama Administration. I just hope and pray that Donald Trump, the president-elect himself, will take this thing down. It’s just so fundamentally flawed at every level.”
The Bears Ears area means different things to different people. That meaning generally revolves around questions like ‘who does this land belong to?’ and ‘what should it be used for?’
For many lawmakers in Utah, like former Rep. Chaffetz, Bears Ears is about federal overreach. For local ranchers who use public lands for grazing it can be about their livelihood. For rock-climbers and mountain-bikers, like the ones featured in this slick video by the outdoor retailer Patagonia, it is about preserving access to natural beauty.
Check out Bears Ears yourself with this Google Flyover video we produced:
For some Native Americans, the landscape represents their history. Tribes migrated through this region a long time ago and the monument is littered with tens of thousands of archaeological sites including sacred areas, cave dwellings, and rock art.
“The area, for us, represents many years, many centuries, of Native American existence and use of the land… and sometimes [that’s] not quite clear because we have very strong oral traditions,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member, said. “We have oral customs and oral history which means a lot of it isn’t documented. The only place it’s documented is out on the land, on the canyon walls. So it’s very, very important that these areas get protected and preserved not only for today but for our future.”
But the Bears Ears National Monument isn’t just significant because of these archeological features. It is also significant because of how tribes got it the designation itself.
After a long history of land being taken away from Native Americans, oftentimes through broken treaties, the federal government then designated reservations for tribes to live on and manage.
“The process that the federal government has historically followed is prescribing what’s in the best interest of the native people. That has always been a long-standing contentious relationship because the tribes very rarely had any input in what was going to be left to them,” Lopez-Whiteskunk explained.
But, with Bears Ears, five Native American tribes formed a coalition and lobbied the Obama Administration directly.
“We really wanted to be a big player at the table in seeking solutions,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said.
President Obama’s Proclamation establishing the monument is like a love letter to Bears Ears.
“From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.”
Further down in that document, Obama created a commission to help manage the monument, made up of members from each tribe.
“In recognition of the importance of tribal participation to the care and management of the objects identified above, and to ensure that management decisions affecting the monument reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge, a Bears Ears Commission (Commission) is hereby established to provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans and on management of the monument.”
“In the history of the Antiquities Act, which was passed in 1906, this is the first-ever national monument designation proposed by American Indian tribes and that, in and of itself, is significant,” Sarah Krakoff, a professor of American Indian Law at the University of Colorado, said.
The Antiquities Act is a law that empowers presidents to create national monuments.
“For the tribes it’s viewed as a way of restoring their connection to the landscape and a partial, not a whole, act of reparations. In the sense that it’s not giving them the land back but it’s giving them a management role and the ability to apply their knowledge to govern and protect the landscape,” Krakoff said.
Still, a recent poll found that a slight majority of Utahns do favor shrinking Bears Ears and the state’s entire congressional delegation is among those groups strongly rooting for change.
This feeling about public lands has been brewing in the west for decades. Inside Energy interviewed Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) last year about the Bears Ears National Monument, not long before Trump took office.
“Every 60 to 70 years there’s a paradigm shift in America on how we look at public lands. It’s time for another paradigm shift,” Bishop said.
He is the chairman of the of the powerful House Committee on Natural Resources and has a big stake in this debate because nearly two thirds of Utah is federal land. Bishop is among a group of Republicans in Congress pushing for a major reform of the Antiquities Act, with a bill that would put limits on the size of new monuments and would require state lawmakers to approve them.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect the official announcement on Monday, December 4th.
- If and when monument boundaries change, could energy development move in? Inside Energy’s Leigh Paterson checks that out.
- Beyond Bears Ears, Native American tribes all over the country are fighting with the federal government over land and resources. Inside Energy made a documentary about these stories called Beyond Standing Rock.
- Utah is covered in archeological sites and energy resources, all spread across a patchwork of of mostly federal and private land. Inside Energy has mapped it all out for you at the bottom of this page.