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The Land Desk: Bears Ears is back

The Valley of the Gods, pictured here, will once again be part of Bears Ears National Monument.
Jonathan P. Thompson
The Valley of the Gods, pictured here, will once again be part of Bears Ears National Monument.

President Joe Biden announced Thursday he will restore Bears Ears National Monument to the boundaries established by President Barack Obama in 2016—with an additional 11,000 acres—and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the boundaries in place on Jan. 20, 2017. The move will reverse the drastic shrinkage of the monuments by Trump in late 2017. Tribal leaders and conservationists praised the move, while Republican Utah politicians slammed it.

THE CONTEXT: In his 1943 book, One Man’s West, author David Lavender describes what would become Bears Ears National Monument as “a million and a quarter acres of staggering desolation between the San Juan and Colorado rivers, a vast triangle of land that even today is not completely mapped.” Several years earlier, the area had been included in a proposed, but failed, 4-million-acre Escalante National Monument.

In the years since, the same landscape not only has been mapped, but also spiderwebbed with roads and ATV trails and pockmarked with uranium mines and oil and gas wells. YouTubers, Instagrammers, and geo-taggers have exposed little known places to the masses, who can’t help but damage the fragile ecosystem, trampling and tracking the cryptobiotic crusts. Looters and pothunters and souvenir collectors have scraped cultural sites of artifacts and shot up rock art panels, in the process ripping pages out of the history book written on the landscapethat chronicles thousands of years of civilization.

In 2015, five tribal nations—the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Tribe—asked President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument on 1.9 million acres of this same landscape, which each of these peoples—and many more—call home. Under the proposal, representatives from the tribes would co-manage the monument with federal land management officials.

In December 2016, after months of debate and hearings on the issue, Obama established the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Instead of a co-management role, a commission made up of elected officers from the five tribes would give “guidance and recommendations.” And more than a half-million acres from the original proposal was left out, apparently as a concession to monument opponents.

Nevertheless, the Utah Legislature’s public lands committee denounced the designation as “unilateral tyranny,” and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called it an “attack on an entire way of life.” That’s despite the fact that the only existing economic activity likely to be hindered by the monument was the pilfering and black-market sale of antiquities. Existing oil and gas leases would remain in place and grazing on public lands wouldn’t be affected at all.

Meanwhile, proponents celebrated the designation of the first national monument at the request of tribal nations, where Indigenous knowledge would be incorporated into interpretation and management, making it “one of the most distinctive and uplifting landscapes in America’s public land systems,” according to University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson.

At least while it lasted. A year after the designation, at the behest of Sen. Hatch, Trump drastically diminished the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. He subtracted 1.15 million acres from Bears Ears, leaving just two tiny units totaling just over 200,000 acres; and cut the 1.9 million-acre GSENM, which was established in 1996, roughly in half, opening up coal and oil and gas deposits to development.

Legal experts agree that the Antiquities Act gives a president the power to create a national monument, but does not give them the power to diminish or demolish it. And in the 1970s, as it put together the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Congress confirmed the fact that the executive branch cannot reverse Antiquities Act actions. On that basis, the five tribal nations in the Bears Ears coalition sued the Trump administration to overturn the shrinkage.

Even as the case crawled through the courts, the Trump administration drew up shoddy management plans that did little to protect the diminished monuments. The Bears Ears Monument Advisory Committee was stocked almost entirely with people who had been opposed to a monument in the first place—including two public lands ranchers—rather than with representatives of the tribal nations with roots in the area or even either of the two new San Juan County commissioners, both Navajo and both monument proponents.

Shortly after Biden was elected he launched a review of the monument shrinkages. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who as a Congresswoman had advocated for the proposed 1.9 million acres, later visited the monuments and listened to stakeholder input before recommending full restoration of both. A long silence from the administration followed, and in late September the Intertribal Coalition sent a letter to Biden demanding he act immediately because, “real harm, much permanent, is occurring on this sacred landscape.”

That apparently did the trick. Grand Staircase-Escalante will once again cover 1.87 million acres, again putting the massive coal deposit in the Kaiparowits Plateau off limits to mining companies. Bears Ears will get back its original 1.35 million acres along with 11,000 acres that the Biden Administration had added, perhaps unwittingly, to the shrunken units. It’s not yet clear whether a new management plan will be developed for Grand Staircase-Escalante, or the pre-Trump plan will be reinstated. Bears Ears will almost certainly get a new management plan.

Regarding Bears Ears, a White House news release notes:

The Bureau of Land Management plans to assign additional rangers to the region; install appropriate signage and infrastructure to inform and support visitors; begin working with local communities, the State of Utah, and Tribal leaders on assessing the potential opportunity for a Bears Ears visitors center that highlights the monument’s cultural resources; and support the Bears Ears Intertribal Commission’s participation in management of the National Monument.

In a statement, the Intertribal Coalition wrote:

The Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition looks forward to the President’s continued leadership in ensuring that a new model of collaborative management between the Tribes, state and federal land agencies is immediately put into action and that a comprehensive Land Management Plan can be developed for the greater Bears Ears landscape. In this new model, the traditional knowledge and place-based conservation strategies of Tribal communities will play a significant role in shaping efforts to conserve and plan a resilient future for this landscape that we all hold dear.

Predictably, Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, both Utah Republicans, lashed back. Here’s Romney’s take:


The “political football” idea has been thrown around a lot. Romney purportedly is concerned that the next administration will just turn around and shrink the monuments again. There’s very little basis for this. As we mentioned earlier, such shrinkage is probably not legal. Secondly, until Trump happened along, administrations didn’t shrink national monuments on a whim. Trump did it for two reasons: to curry favor with Hatch, whose political heft he needed to cut taxes for the ultra-rich; and to erase Obama’s legacy.

“Thank you, President Biden and Vice President Harris for upholding your commitment to restore Honmuru (the Bears Ears monument), which is the birthplace of many Hopi and other Native peoples,” said Clark W. Tenakhongva, Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe and BEITC Co-Chair, in a statement. “Through this action, the history of our people, our culture, and religion will be preserved for future generations.”

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KSUT publishes selected articles from The Land Desk, a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson. Articles are archived here.

The Land Desk explores news from the Four Corners, Colorado Plateau, and Native and Indigenous lands. Jonathan is a longtime Four Corners-based journalist and author of River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and his new book, Sagebrush Empire.

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