Bears Ears’ future

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People are working themselves into a lather over Bears Ears National Monument – a monument that does not yet exist but has been proposed by a coalition of five Native American tribes. It would cover some 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah, an area rich in Ancestral Puebloan and other cultural sites, red-rock scenery, and rugged beauty.

The governor of Utah has pleaded with the Obama administration not to employ his executive authority to designate the monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, while the tribes have urged him to take action.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop says he will soon introduce a sweeping public lands bill offering alternative management plans for public lands in eastern Utah. Under his proposal, which came out of a massive stakeholder effort, Bears Ears would become a national conservation area about half the size of the proposed monument, with lesser protections.

Recently, three phony documents began appearing in public places in San Juan County: a letter supposedly signed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell claiming the Obama administration was going to reduce the size of the Navajo Nation; a fake flier announcing a party to celebrate the new monument, saying environmental groups would provide “good food” but “Utah Navajos” were not invited; and a letter supposedly signed by the vice president of the Navajos’ Oljato Chapter, Albert Holiday, in which he proclaims his opposition to the monument. However, Holiday says he did not write or sign the letter and actually supports the monument.

These documents could have been passed off as satirical commentary if they didn’t involve putting real people’s names on things they did not actually sign – which may rise to the level of a criminal act. But the phony writings show just how desperate some folks are to stop the monument.

Opponents have produced a short video in which San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo, and a half-dozen other Native Americans say they oppose the monument. But the five tribes have repeatedly stated their official position is in support of the designation.

So the question is: Does the Bears Ears area, which includes Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge, merit monument status? Do its resources put it on a par with, say, Canyons of the Ancients, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, and other nearby areas already designated so? Does it need greater protection than it is currently receiving? Would monument status help it or harm it?

We conclude – with some reluctance – that, yes, it ought to become a monument.

One main concern of opponents seems to be access for wood-cutting, as many Navajos living near Cedar Mesa rely on firewood to heat their homes. This is a problem that is solvable. There are ways to ensure firewood remains available, perhaps even by cutting an ample supply each year and hauling it to a central location for distribution, to avoid off-road damage. This should not be a deal-breaker.

Monument status will inevitably mean publicity and an increase in visitation, and this is not an unmitigated benefit. Recreational impacts can sometimes be as harmful as many of the uses traditionally decried as destructive, such as oil drilling. But a well-written plan can help ensure that recreation is kept in check and the monument’s many resources are better protected. As it is, the estimated 100,000 Native American sites within its boundaries are subject to rampant looting and vandalism. Monument status, we hope, would bring a little more money for law enforcement, though this is not always the case and it depends on the will of Congress.

We have some reservations about the Bears Ears Management Commission, which would be the monument’s policymaking body. As proposed, it would consist of representatives of each tribe involved (Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, Hopi, and Uintah and Ouray Ute), plus three federal agencies (BLM, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service). While we welcome the ground-breaking idea of the tribes having a collaborative management role rather than just a “consulting” role, we believe the proposal may need tweaking. San Juan County deserves a seat at the table, for one thing. But those details can be worked out.

The land is already federal, so this would not affect the ongoing debate over federal lands vs. states’ rights. And San Juan County, which regularly promotes itself overseas and nationally to attract tourists, should welcome the new visitors who would come to the monument. (Yes, even cyclists and hikers spend money.)

We know the designation will cause an outcry and heighten resentment of the federal government, but obscurity and relaxed regulatory oversight are not adequately protecting the area.

In its proposal, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition states, “The wonder is that Bears Ears has not already received some sort of special Federal protection as a park, monument, or wilderness.” That state of affairs needs to change, and Bishop’s bill – which would allow expedited energy development on some archaeologically rich parts of the area – doesn’t go far enough and may never even come to fruition.

Is Bears Ears special enough to become a national monument? Clearly, the answer is yes.

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