On Dec. 28, 2016, former President Barack Obama designated a new 1.35 million-acre national monument in southeastern Utah called Bears Ears — so named for two buttes rising out of the desert in San Juan County. This designation was met with contention that is ongoing; while national environmentalists support it, locals are outraged. Utah’s legislature recently passed a resolution entreating President Donald Trump to rescind the designation. As of publication time, the issue has still not been resolved.
Prior to the decision, the Bureau of Land Management was responsible for the land. Open access was granted to citizens who could ride on ATV trails, camp anywhere and graze their livestock in certain areas. Utah’s state government was working on the Utah Public Lands Initiative for three years to keep the Bears Ears area public while protecting it before Obama — petitioned by several out-of-state tribes and environmental groups — stepped in.
This week, the University Journal Editorial Board discussed the implications of this designation and whether or not it is justified.
Some Board members questioned the motive behind the designation. Environmental and cultural protections were the key reasons behind it; in 2016, there were many thefts of Native American artifacts from Bears Ears, according to the Washington Post. Another angle members brought up is tourist attraction. A couple of members expressed distaste for this, saying it causes more foot traffic and detracts from the natural, wild appeal of the area. But others said it might help take pressure off southern Utah’s other national parks and monuments, like Zion and Bryce Canyon.
While the issue of Bears Ears is largely a question of national protection vs. public access, the main grievance among Board members was the lack of local representation in the decision. Several Board members vocalized disapproval of how Obama went about designating the land as a monument by not consulting locals who are affected by it and brashly overruling state government. This lack of consultation and representation has sparked a wave of outrage from Utahns, making the executive branch appear impersonal and apathetic toward state and local voices.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition consists of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe. It was founded in 2015 and drove the national monument designation of Bears Ears with the intent to protect its cultural artifacts and sacred land. These tribes officially petitioned the government to attain Native representation in management of the land and ensure access for locals. However, the official stance of the Navajo Nation contradicts the opinions of some local San Juan County chapter members who have expressed opposition. Some say the designation won’t enable Native representation and access. Had locals been consulted prior to the national monument designation of Bears Ears, perhaps the outcome would be more favorable.
One local Navajo woman, Marie Holliday, worries the designation will bar daily access. “I fear with a monument, there will be more restrictions, and we won’t have that opportunity, especially our Indian people, our Navajo people. We are always being cut off somewhere, and we don’t really trust the federal government. That’s the way we are. We want to continue to use it like the way it is,” Holliday said, according to the Daily Signal. The intended effect of the designation is to protect Native culture; ironically, it could restrict the very access they seek.
Some Board members were dismayed at the national monument’s size, as 1.35 million acres is a huge portion of land. They suggested a smaller area being made a national monument with emphasis on leaving parts public for ATV trails, grazing, camping and the like. These same members expressed disappointment with the fact that the Utah Public Lands Initiative did not pass, as it would have designated areas of wilderness and local access. However, another member countered the initiative didn’t pass for other reasons — it would have allowed state government to sell areas for oil and mining development.
Board members also expressed doubt about the government’s management efficiency; one cited the shutdown of 2013, saying when the government shuts down, so will all access to the land.
While many members were happy the land was being protected, some were angry about the government’s handling of the matter. In early years of the National Parks Service, government representatives would visit areas of designation, examine the areas and talk to locals before making a decision. Clearly, the federal government didn’t make that effort in the case of Bears Ears.
The opinions expressed above are the collective perspective of the University Journal Editorial Board. The editorial board meets Fridays at 4 p.m. in Room 176C of the Sharwan Smith Student Center. Readers are welcome to
comment online at suunews.com or on Facebook.