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Shrinking Bears Ears National Monument: What has been Lost

By Brenda Barrett May 28, 2018
Bears Ears National Monument Photo credit Andy Laurenzi courtesy of Archaeology Southwest

Bears Ears National Monument
Photo credit Andy Laurenzi courtesy of Archaeology Southwest

Almost all readers know the outlines of the controversy surrounding the Bears Ears National Monument. How for years those supporting the monument attempted to negotiate with state and local officials in Utah to craft a compromise to protect this highly significant landscape. How when this failed President Obama, at the very end of his term, used his presidential powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the region as a national monument. And how within less than a year the Trump administration reversed this action shrinking Bears Ears by over 85%.

While there is an understanding that the monument designation was a good thing and rolling it back was not good, there has not always been a full discussion of what has been lost by this action. At a recent program (April 13, 2018) Bears Ears National Monument and the Future of Our National Monument sponsored by Johns Hopkins University, William Doelle, President and CEO of Archeology Southwest, said it this way “Personally what I see as so important about the Antiquities Act is that it allows landscape scale, protection, preservation and planning… and in Bears Ears for the first time the impetus to use the Antiquities Act to establish a monument came from tribal voices.”

The creation of Bears Ears National Monument did not just set aside public land for enhanced management by federal agencies, it established a new management approach whereby five Native American tribes with historic associations to the place were part of the management of its future. At the recent Johns Hopkins program, Willie Gray Eyes, Chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah, told how this monument was rooted in the idea of ancestral land and all the resources of mother earth – water, subsistence areas for hunting and gathering, as well as ceremonial and sacred sites. He noted that native people take a holistic perspective of place and for this reason traditional knowledge is as important as science to its management.

Octavius Seowtewa of the Pueblo of Zuni spoke of the grassroots effort to have the monument recognized. Five tribes came together and to form a coalition to work through challenging issues recognizing each other’s heritage and establishing boundaries for the monument. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—an alliance of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribes was to be a ‘voice for the ancestors’ in the management and protection of this new national monument. This was proposed as an unprecedented level of collaborative management between tribes and the federal government for the new national monument. The Bears Ears’ lands would remain in public hands and open to all Americans. But for the first time, those lands would be managed in a way that also honors the worldview of today’s Native people and their ancestors.

The original 2016 proclamation establishing the Bears Ears monument specifically recognized the importance of tribal participation its care and management. To ensure that management decisions affecting the monument reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge, the proclamation established Bears Ears Commission to provide guidance and recommendations on both the development of management plans and on its implementation. It further directed the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to fully consider integrating the traditional and historical knowledge and special expertise of the Commission in making management decisions. This careful and lawyerly language gave the tribes an unprecedent role in conserving these lands. You can read all this in the original presidential proclamation, which by the way is also worth reading for its stirring description of the landscape and the resources contained therein. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/28/proclamation-establishment-bears-ears-national-monument

Tommy Beaudreau, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of the Interior under President Obama, outlined the almost decade long process of negotiating the framework and boundaries for Bears Ears. He explained how the department, after extensive research, concluded that the whole landscape was a large object of scientific interest. Its significance went far beyond a collection of archeological sites on a map -the historic record covered the entire landscape. He also said that the designation was important because “At the end of the day, we wanted to establish the precedent of a different way to manage public land that included cooperative management with a role for Native American people. We wanted to have that model introduced.”

But as we know all of this was not to be. Although the monument designation moved forward on December 28, 2016, as soon as the new administration was in power, it was high on Secretary Zinke’s list to radically scale it back. And that is what happened.

In conclusion, we as a nation have lost so much with the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument. There will be less protection for an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites as well as the paleontological and geological wonders. We have missed a chance to manage part of our heritage on a landscape scale and most tragically the chance to do so in partnership with the tribes that have lived upon and cared for this land for generations untold.

Below – a video of the event.

Many thanks to Sara Chicone of The Cultural Heritage Management Graduate Program of Advanced Academic Programs, Johns Hopkins University and to all the participants on the panel on Bears Ears National Monument. For the whole story watch the  program here. 

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