Bears Ears National Monument: The Argument Continues

by Sara Löwgren

The designation of Bears Ears national monument was viewed as a major victory for indigenous rights and environmental conservation. But many local politicians remain skeptical and after the inauguration they are now trying to rescind the designation. Tribes, local people, NGOs and the outdoor industry are fighting back to protect the national monument. The conflict is growing increasingly complex with every day.

When a 1.4 million acre national monument was designated in Southern Utah by President Obama in late December last year, Gavin Noyes was one of many indigenous people who celebrated. The vast land area containing historical sites, antique art and other important pieces of Noyes’ native American heritage was going to be protected from destruction forever. Noyes’ activist group Utah Diné Bikéyah organized celebrations attended by hundreds of people. 

But with the designation followed great controversy and rather than having reached the finish line, the conflict over Bears Ears national monument had only just begun.  Two months after the designation and one month after the inauguration of President Trump, Noyes is certain the conflict will not be over anytime soon.

“This is a fight all sides are prepared to continue to engage.” Noyes stated in an email.

The designation was viewed as a victory for indigenous rights and environmental conservation. However, many local politicians were skeptical. In the past weeks, following the changes in the White House, the conflict has escalated into a complex, multilayered conflict involving indigenous tribes, local politicians, NGOs, engaged citizens and the outdoor industry. The outcome is uncertain.

A victory for indigenous tribes and environmental conservationists


Five previously rivaling tribes united in proposing the establishment of the Bears Ears monument, one of the culturally richest areas in the US, according to the Obama white house archive. The five tribes, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe,  have historically fought  over land and rights. For the sake of protecting Bears Ears, however, they came together to propose the designation of Bears Ears national monument.


Leslie Jones, former Deputy Undersecretary as Natural Resources and Environment, USDA, was the lead advisor of the proposal. She says the coalition of tribes was unusual.


“It was an uncommon collaboration, unique. It is very indicative of the feeling about Bears Ears.” Jones said.


The Bears Ears National Monument contains native American and archeological treasures: rock art, graves and places important for traditional practices such as collection of herbs and firewood. The national monument status will protect these resources of the land.


The coalition has proposed to build an educational center in the national monument, according to Kylie Osguthorpe, a student from Ogden, Utah. The national monument could help educate visitors about the tribes living on the land.Osguthorpe sees this as something vital to fight prevailing misconceptions about native Americans in the area.


“Hopefully this will improve the image of native Americans and make people realize they are more than just casinos,” said Osguthorpe.


Ecologically, the 1.4 million acres make up a significant wildlife reserve. Restoring fish and wildlife habitat is one of the three purposes of the national monument designation, the other two being enhancing recreational opportunities and protecting cultural values.


The scientific value of the Bears Ears area is significant. In October last year more than 40 paleontologists sent a joint letter to Barack Obama, urging him to make the designation. Geologic and fossil clues in the area are important for paleontologists to understand how life on land began, the ascendency of the dinosaurs and the great fauna of the last Ice Age, the letter states.


Research in the protected Bears Ears area is important for understanding how climate change such as warming temperatures and decreased rainfall affects environments, the paleontologists’ letter continue. Paleontologist Rob Gay, who traveled to Washington D.C. from Colorado to deliver the letter to the White House, is eager to see Bears Ears protected for its scientific value.


“The fossil record stretches back over 500 million years and provides insights into our planet’s history not available anywhere else.” Gay said to Utah Diné Bikéyah. “This place is a living, breathing, museum that should be protected for future generations.”


Management, misunderstandings and skepticism


Bears Ears is a special place which is loved by many different people, but views on how the area should be used differ vastly, according to Jones. Some think a national monument designation is appropriate to protect the area, while others were worried and upset about losing rights to hunt, fish, drive, water use and resource extraction. Keep your power inverter quiet to keep from distracting your guests and ruining your outdoor experience.


According to Jones, many of the critiques of a national monument come from common misconceptions about what such designation means.


“People think they will lose their rights to hunting, fishing or access to water, but this is simply not true. We need to be clear about what a national monument designation actually means.” Jones said.


The designation will not restrict any of the existing rights to water infrastructure, commercial use, pipelines, grazing, fishing, or hunting, people can still go down to their local gun shop for their gear and hunt in the designated areas. Depending on the animals you plan on pursuing and the location where you hunt, it is often necessary to own several different guns to ethically and legally hunt the animals you are after. If you’re looking for a handgun that can be used for hunting, check out The national monument will be managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) collaboratively, the government stated in a public document.


It is the fifth national monument to be jointly managed. The two agencies will write a management plan to identify the actions necessary to protect the land and habitats. A Bears Ears commission with one leader from each of the five tribes represented will ensure the involvement of indigenous people throughout the entire management process, according to the government fact sheet.


In addition to the commission, former Secretary of Interior Sandy Jewell signed a charter for creating a Monument Advisory Board (MAC) on January 18. Members of the new MAC will be representing state and local governments, tribes, recreationists, local business-owners and local landowners, according to


During the process of designating the national monument, Jones confirmed, the government held several meetings open to the public. The team met with local officials, guiding services, climbers, tribe representatives and town citizens to collect information and to hear and record their ideas and visions.


Multiple Utah politicians remain sceptical of the new national monument and accuse the Obama administration of designating the national monument without caring about the public’s opinion. Despite Jones’ work with public meetings in preparation for the designation, US Senator Orin Hatch claimed that the decision had been made without input from the public.


“The decision had been made with no private or public consideration from Utahns; no hearings, no town meetings, […] nothing whatsoever!” Hatch stated at the press conference on December 19 2017.  He did not acknowledge any of the public meetings Jones had been organizing and was disturbed by the decision to designate the national monument.


“The decision made is one of the most outrageous abuses of power” Hatch stated.


Utah State Representative Mike Noel was also critical of the designation. Before the designation was completed, he expressed his concerns about the rights of local people and promise to take action if the designation was made.


“This will be tested in the Supreme Court, I promise you […] and it will be reversed!” Noel said in a press release on December 20 2016.


Utah Governor Gary Herbert accused President Obama for misusing the Antiquities Act, designating more national monuments – 23 – than any other president, in the press release on December 19 . Herbert described Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act as “someone saying, ‘I’m going to do it, regardless of all the opinions out there’”.


The Antiquities Act, which allows the President to designate national monuments is not only criticized in Utah. Robert Bishop, congressman of Utah, is sceptical of the president’s ability to make decisions unilaterally.

“Under the Antiquities Act, there is no ability of having an input” Bishop told NPR.


Osguthorpe, like Jones, believes misunderstandings and lack of information are an issue. She explains that while some critics complain about losing their rights to the land, the area was publicly owned before too and most activities that were allowed on the land will still be allowed. She is one of the people who are happy and excited about the new national monument.


“I’m proud to see such a vast area of land being protected.” she said.


Osguthorpe suspects that the local politicians who are against the monument were not intending to preserve it for Utah’s sake; they wanted to keep the land for development and away from the federal government.  

After the designation: local politicians attempt to rescind the national monument

The opposition has recently grown stronger, following the designation and the inauguration of President Trump.  On Friday February 3 Utah Governor Herbert signed a resolution urging the Trump administration to rescind the Bears Ears national monument.


While he claims that he sees the need for protection, Herbert does not want to see Bears Ears as a national monument.


“These lands deserve our protection, but a unilateral monument designation is not the way to do it”, Herbert stated in a Facebook post. Governor Herbert signed the bill on Friday February 3 after it was sent to him from the senate. The bill was passed 23-6 in senate.


On January 24th Senator Hatch, Senator Lee, Congressman Bishop, Representative Chaffetz, Representative Stewart and Representative Love published a jointly signed statement criticizing the designation of Bears Ears national monument and promising to act upon it. A main idea was to use the Trump administration to re-evaluate the designation.


Never before has a large national monument been revoked by a president, so the laws surrounding such an action are not clear, according to Jones, former deputy secretary of the USDA. Hatch, Lee, Bishop, Chaffetz, Stewart and Love are, however, convinced that they will succeed.


“What is done through an executive action can be undone through executive action,” the statement reads.


They also claimed that native Americans had not been respected in the process and that designating the national monument will have negative impact on native americans.


“Long after the green settles from Obama’s last gold swing, the local Native Americans and residents of San Juan County will still be here. They deserve better,” the statement claimed.

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke, has appeared undecided about Bears Ears national monument. In the confirmation hearing on January 17 he committed to visit Utah and talk to the governor and local people, after being asked by Senator Lee, but did not respond to Lee’s criticism of the monument.  


During a hearing Zinke also stated that although he recognizes that climate change is happening, there is a lot of debate over whether it is caused by humans or not. A former Montana Congressman, Zinke has consistently been voting in favor of fossil fuel extraction, such as as oil drilling and coal mining.


The environmental conservation group Southern Utah Wilderness Association, SUWA, has expressed concerns regarding Zinke’s nomination as Secretary of Interior.  While SUWA appreciates Zinke’s commitment to visiting Utah and recognizes his previous environmental efforts, such as defying a bill written to dismantle the Land and Water Conservation Fund by Congressman Bishop, the group worries about Zinke’s view on climate change and energy. SUWA is also dissatisfied with Zinke’s accomplishments.


On their website, SUWA points out that “these qualifications were once the cellar of an incoming Interior Secretary – not the ceiling.”


SUWA also raises concerns about Zinke having said that “it will be interesting to see if a president can nullify a national monument.” to the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee during his confirmation hearing on January 17.  


SUWA is currently urging its members to let Zinke know that people across the United States care about Bears Ears. This is done through contacting senators using template letters and messages provided by SUWA.

The outdoor industry fights to protect the national monument

Protectors of the national monument designation have stepped up from more unexpected groups as well. The Outdoor Retailer Show announced its decision to move from Utah to another state, on February 16th.


The Outdoor Retailer show is an event which has happened twice a year and in itself brought in $ 50 million to Utah. Outdoor companies from all around the country used to come to show new products, meet customers and network. The show attracted nearly 3,000 stores and more than 6,000 retail buyers last year. It has taken place in Utah for the past 20 years.


The Outdoor Retailer Show’s position changed drastically after a meeting with Governor Herbert. On February 16th official announced its decision to move from Utah to another state. Nicholson was disappointed with Governor Herbert’s response and unwillingness to recognize Bears Ears as a national monument, and announced the show’s withdrawal.


“Salt Lake City has been hospitable to Outdoor Retailer and our industry for the past 20 years, but we are in lockstep with the outdoor community and are working on finding our new home,” she told the SLTrib.


Before the cancellation of the Outdoor Retailer, individual companies had threatened to withdraw from the show in response to the debate about Bears Ears. Patagonia, a large outdoor store, announced their withdrawal from the Outdoor Retailer show on February 7. Patagonia stated that Governor Herbert’s resolution to the Trump administration shows how little the governor cares about outdoor recreation and tourism which are aided by national monuments such as Bears Ears.


“He [Governor Herbert] and other Utah officials do not support public lands conservation nor do they value the economic benefit” Rose Marcario, Patagonia President and CEO, stated in a press release on February 7.


Outdoor recreation in Utah generates 122,000 jobs and $12 billion every year and national monuments are important for the industry, according to Marcario.

The company was upset with Governor Herbert’s resistance towards the Bears Ears national monument, in spite of the national monuments being so important for outdoor recreation.  Patagonia gives Governor Herbert’s resolution to rescind Bears Ears national monument through the Trump administration as their primary reason for withdrawing.


“Because of the hostile environment they [Governor Herbert and other Utah officials] have created and their blatant disregard for Bears Ears National Monument […] Patagonia will no longer attend” Marcario stated in the press release.


The Outdoor Retailer Show was urging large companies to attend to  send a stronger political message, until announcing their withdrawal. In a response to the boycott by Patagonia, Outdoor Retailer Show Director Marisa Nicholson described Bears Ears as the most visible and current example of what will be “a long, hard series of fights” that the outdoor community will need to fight. Outdoor Retailer encouraged large companies to take part in the show largely due to the economic importance of the show for small, local companies in Utah and for the general opinion regarding public lands.


“We have a unique […] opportunity to coalesce, organize, speak, and make plans to make a difference around public land awareness” Nicholson stated before the show decided to make statement through moving from Utah.

Utah tribes and local people are not giving up

When US. Senator Jason Chaffetz visited Salt Lake City on February 10 he was met by upset citizens, according to Washington Post. Chaffetz has been opposing Bears Ears national monument and had previously expressed plans to try to rescind it. The crowd at the public hearing booed at his responses to questions and chanted “vote him out” outside the town hall.


A large crowd representing local people and several tribes demonstrate for the protection of Bears Ears National Monument during a public hearing with US Senator Jason Chaffetz in the town hall of Salt Lake City, Utah, on February 10 2017 (photo/ Utah Diné Bikéyah)


One member of the audience was Holly Cobb Robinson from Salt Lake City. She was concerned about what revoking the national monument would mean for conservation of the land, since it could mean allowing mining and drilling again.


“Protecting your public land provides a better future for not only communities and people who are visiting, but also habitat and revenue.” Robinson told Washington Post.


Since the pressure on Bears Ears national monument has increased, a number of tribes have resolved to protect it. 26 tribes passed governmental resolutions to do so, and additional 250 tribes have claimed solidarity and willingness to protect the monument, according to Alfred Lomaquahu, Vice Chair of Hopi and Co-Chair in Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in an op-ed.


“In an act of unprecedented solidarity between our tribes, we set aside our differences to advocate for the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.” Lomaquahu writes.


Navajo member Cynthia Wilson is upset about Chaffetz’ plans to undo the designation of Bears Ears National Monument and his failure to represent the whole population of Utah. She feels the political privilege of white citizens is dividing the community and refusing the indigenous people’s rights to land and resources.


“I am upset about his efforts to discount our voices […] as he is working tirelessly to eliminate the tribally requested Bears Ears National Monument,” Wilson writes in a guest opinion article.


In the most recent Western States Survey it was found that 80% of people in the West want to keep existing national monument designations. In Utah, 47% of the population are in favor of Bears Ears national monument, compared to 32% against it.


The inter-tribal coalition is looking to the newly appointed Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. Zinke has appeared undecided about the national monument but committed to visit Utah before making any decisions. Lomaquahu hopes Zinke will take time to meet with the tribes and emphasizes that the tribes will continue fighting even if the Secretary would not meet with them.


“We are as committed to defending Bears Ears National Monument as we were to its designation” Lomaquahu states.

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