Bears Ears National Monument just may make history as America’s shortest-lived national monument. President Barack Obama designated 1.4 million acres in southeastern Utah a national monument in late December, just weeks before he left office. Although the monument was created to protect both the natural landscape and Native American cultural and historical sites, the size of the new monument irritated some area residents and lawmakers, who saw the move as a federal usurpation of state and local authority. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump ordered a review of all national monument designations from the last 21 years in excess of 100,000 acres. First on the review list is the Bears Ears monument. While the national discussion focuses on Trump’s use of the executive order, on a local level, the monument exposes tensions between state, local, and tribal authority over western lands.
“The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time we ended this abusive practice,” Trump said after signing the action, characterizing the expansion of federal lands in the west as something that “should never have happened.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke echoed Trump’s concerns over the expansion of federal control in the west.
“Historically, the Act calls for the President to designate the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” Zinke said. “Despite this clear directive ‘smallest area’ has become the exception and not the rule.
Under the terms of the executive order, the Department of the Interior has 45 days to recommend changes to or rescission of the Bears Ears monument designation. It has an additional three months to issue recommendations for around 30 other national monuments, some dating back to the Clinton administration.
Soon after Trump’s order was announced, various tribal leaders released statements expressing concern that the land surrounding the Bears Ears buttes would lose its federal protections.
“Bears Ears National Monument is more than just mere federal land to us, as it may be to many other stakeholders – it is a living landscape; it has a pulse,” said Shaun Chapoose, Chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, who called the monument “a fulfillment of our duty to preserve our cultures and our ancestral lands.”
Carleton Bowekaty, Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair and a Zuni councilmember, called Trump and Zirke’s statements “extremely troubling.”
Both Chapoose and Bowekaty are members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group which fought for years to create a Bears Ears national monument that would be managed jointly by a tribal council and federal agencies. Bears Ears is the first national monument to have direct tribal involvement in its management. This condition was part of an early proposal for the monument drawn up by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Council nearly two years ago.
The creation of the Bears Ears monument in December 2016 marked the end of a years-long campaign by an inter-tribal coalition to assign protective status to the area. This gives the Bears Ears monument the distinction of being the first monument created at the behest of Native American tribes. The tribes are also represented on a council that assists federal agencies in the management of the monument’s land. Due to this tribal presence, creation of the monument also significantly expanded tribal management authority in the area.
On a more local level, the national monument designation has exposed divides between the state and federal government, as well as between tribe members and others who think that the order went too far. (When the monument was proposed last summer, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called it a “political tomahawk,” telling a Senate committee that a unilateral monument designation would “divide the people.”)
Thus far, his prediction seems to be correct. In late February, lawmakers in Utah introduced a bill calling for the state to acquire the public land occupied by the monument. Rep. Mike Noel, whose district includes the Bears Ears monument, introduced the measure as a way of starting a discussion about means of preserving state and tribal management of the area.
Noel said that the state “would work cooperatively with local elected officials, the local Navajo Nation chapter and other southwestern tribes, to structure a governance and management coalition plan that provides local and state stewardship over the Bears Ears.”
Noel’s bill cites a federal law allowing the Bureau of Land Management to transfer its holdings to states or qualified non-profits to support a recreational purpose. It has been used in Utah to establish several state parks, but land transfers are limited to 6,400 acres per year, a tiny fraction of Bears Ears’ area. Nevertheless, on a party line vote, the bill passed out of committee in the Utah state legislature.
Representatives of the tribes involved, however, claim that Utah has long sought to limit tribal authority.
“[Utah lawmakers] have publicly stated they want the monument undone. Their congressional delegation continues to covet the lands of the Ute Tribe and erase our entire existence through laws and other congressional actions,” Chapoose told the Salt Lake City Tribune.
Last spring, before Bears Ears was designated a national monument, members of the local Navajo tribe criticized the proposed national monument out of fear it would limit access to the site. Supporters countered that these concerns reflected a poor understanding of the proposed monument and reaffirmed that the Bears Ears monument would be open for tribal members to collect wood and sacred plants.
Complicating the issue is the question of Native American religion. Supporters of the Bears Ears monument claim that it protects sacred sites and ensures that people will be able to harvest ceremonial herbs and plants.
However, the practice of Native American religion, including access to public lands for the purpose of collecting herbs is already protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, first passed in 1978 and then expanded in 1994. Under the terms of this act, access to sacred sites on public land, as well as the possession of sacred items such as eagle feathers and peyote, is protected.