The name of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument is fitting because, of all the potential monument designations before President Obama, this one really stands out. For starters, the new monument would be big. It encompasses 1.9 million acres of unprotected canyons, mesas, arches, and redrock formations similar to those of the adjacent Canyonlands National Park. It would be the largest monument President Obama has ever designated — only California’s Mojave Trails even comes close at 1.6 million acres.
But national monuments are about far more than acreage. The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest,” and Bears Ears meets those criteria with ease. The area not only contains more than 1,000 archeological sites, many of which are sacred to Native American tribes, but also plays a vital role in contemporary Native American culture.
Unfortunately, the monument also stands out in a less inspiring way: the range of serious threats faced by the lands it would protect. They include oil and gas development (including fracking), uranium and potash mining, illegal off-road vehicle intrusions, and the looting and vandalism of archaeological sites such as rock markings and gravesites. Time is running out to stop the desecration and destruction of an irreplaceable landscape.
It’s a landscape that inspires strong feelings, and if you’ve ever been to redrock country, you know why. Iconic is an overused word these days, but it fits this place. Even so, I was impressed last Saturday when more than a thousand people braved temperatures that soared past 100 degrees to attend a public hearing in the small town of Bluff, Utah, on the Bears Ears proposal. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and other federal officials listened patiently to arguments both for and against a monument designation (with a solid majority in favor). For the Sierra Club, Robert Tohe, a long-time organizer, spoke on the risks from proposed uranium mines. I and others from the Sierra Club were there to lend support, including a busload of folks from the Glen Canyon Group who came down from Moab, which lies just north of the proposed monument. Overall, it was probably the biggest (and hottest) turnout for any public hearing on a national monument during President Obama’s presidency.
But for all that, what makes the Bears Ears proposal stand out most of all is that it originated not from the usual public lands advocacy suspects but from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes five sovereign Tribal Nations: Hopi; Navajo; Uintah and Ouray Ute; Ute Mountain Ute; and Zuni. Although they’ve worked in partnership with conservation organizations, it is the tribes that are leading the way and directly petitioning President Obama to protect the Bears Ears. Not only that, but the Bears Ears proposal would also set a powerful precedent after designation: The new national monument would be co-managed by Native American tribes and the federal government.
My hope is that the ultimate success of the proposal for Bears Ears will mark a decisive turning point in how we hear, learn from, and lift up the voices of Native Americans leading on issues of clean energy and public lands protection. Too often in the past, those voices have been either dismissed or ignored altogether, even by those in the public lands sector. Here’s a chance to begin addressing those historic injustices while also protecting a key area of the southwestern U.S.
We should all be grateful that the Native nations in the Inter-Tribal Coalition have put such thought and energy into creating a plan that would protect these lands for all of us. Now it’s time to add your voice: Ask President Obama to take action and protect Bears Ears as a national monument.