Battle for Bears Ears

Navajo tribes in southern Utah enjoy free access to the federally owned region called Bears Ears. The land is managed by both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management through resource management plans. These plans are developed in collaboration with state, local and tribal governments, even though most of the time the federal agencies ignore their concerns. However, a coordinated campaign of out-of-state environmental groups and Indian tribes are trying to make Bears Ears into a national monument. To do this, they are pressuring President Obama to declare the land a national monument through the Antiquities Act of 1906. Federal regulation could restrict the tribes from practicing their sacred traditions if Bears Ears is declared a national monument.

Currently, the local Indian tribes can worship and perform their traditional rites like hunting, gathering wood and food and harvesting herbs for medicine. However, with a national monument designation, this activity would be illegal or significantly curtailed. If Bears Ears becomes a national monument, the tribes could be subject to fees to enter the park or be barred altogether from visiting sites where ceremonial rituals are performed.

The President does not need congressional or state consent to declare the Bears Ears region a national monument. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives him full authority to establish national monuments. This Act can be a very valuable policy tool enabling a U.S. President to offer national monument status to protect important historical sites from looting, vandalism and other damaging events when congressional action is not rapid enough. However, Bears Ears is an instance where the declaration is likely to restrict access to the area to the very people for whom access is most culturally vital – Utah’s and the surrounding states’ Native populations.

President Obama has used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to a greater extent than any of his predecessors. To date, he has designated a total of 24 national monuments, effectively rendering 265 million acres of public land “off-limits”. One of his most recent designations was the Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument. Representative Bruce Poliquin, whose district contains the new national monument, has indicated that the locals are completely against it, observing that “several communities most impacted by such a plan voted in non-binding referendums on the proposal in the Katahdin Region and in every instance the people voted in large numbers to oppose the concept.” Residents are distressed that the land will now become inaccessible for traditional outdoor activities and that nearby lumber mills could be impacted, and the new national monument status for this territory disregards local residents’ right to enjoy their own land. This situation mirrors what is happening at Bears Ears.

According to an article in the Deseret News, out-of-state interest groups are the main drivers behind making Bears Ears a national monument for conservation purposes. Two California-based groups, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, donated $20 million to the campaign. This past July, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation announced $15.6 million in donations to various environmental causes, including some reportedly for the Bears Ears campaign. This influx of outside money has raised questions about how much local tribal grassroots support there is for the designation.

Currently, Utah Congressional leaders such as like Senator Mike Lee, Rep. Rob Bishop, Rep. Chris Stewart and Rep. Jason Chaffetz are trying to address unreasonable federal overreach. This past year, Rep. Bishop and Rep. Chaffetz introduced the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act of 2016 (H.R. 5780) and Utah Public Lands Initiative Partner Act (H.R. 5781). H.R. 5780 is a compromise between the tribes, conservationists and industry. The bill would allow for a large portion of Bears Ears to be conserved while giving parts to the local Navajo Tribe and business interests who want to develop the land. H.R. 5781 prevents the Federal government from declaring Bears Ears a national monument. Senator Lee has been visiting the Bears Ears region, hosting events where the community is invited to voice its concerns, and actively letting Congress know the Bears Ears community’s thoughts on the matter.

Chronic National Park Service (NPS) budget shortfalls (not to mention a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance in national park units) added to the social costs imposed on a population that has long been mistreated by the federal government suggests that now is an inopportune time to designate additional federal lands as national monuments.


In Depth: Federalism

Genuine accountability to hardworking taxpayers results when state and local legislators work with members of the community to determine a plan of action that is right for each individual state, city or town. Real solutions to America’s challenges can be found in the states – America’s fifty laboratories of democracy…

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