A monumental idea: A coalition of tribes asks President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to protect a swath of Utah lands


The Bears Ears formation provides the name for a proposed national
monument of 1.9 million acres in Southeast Utah. Photo courtesy Paper Rocket Productions.

On Oct. 15 the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership of five southwestern native tribes, presented a groundbreaking proposal to President Obama’s administration to turn a large swath of public lands in southern Utah into a national monument.

The coalition, a tribal organization of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni governments, finalized its formal relationship during the past summer after meeting to work out the details of their business and cultural relationship to the land, and hone the parameters of the designation.

Prior to presenting their proposal to the Obama administration, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition delivered copies to representatives Rob Bishop (R-District 1) and Jason Chaffetz (RDistrict 3). Both have been working on a sweeping public-lands initiative, which seeks to address federal land management in the Bears Ears and other regions of eastern Utah.

However, as the Bears Ears proposal details, tribes say their input has been excluded despite their extensive efforts to have the proposal considered as part of the initiative.

The 1906 Antiquities Act gives the U.S. President the authority to create national monuments on public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. It was the result of concerns about protecting prehistoric indigenous ruins and artifacts, and the antiquities found on federal lands in the West, such as Hovenweep in Utah / Colorado. Removal of artifacts from these lands by private collectors had become a serious problem by the end of the 19th century.

In 1902 Iowa Congressman John Lacey, chair of the House Committee on Public Lands, traveled to the Southwest with anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewett, to see for himself the extent of the pot hunters’ impact. His findings, supported by an exhaustive report by Hewett to Congress, detailed the archaeological resources of the region, and provided the necessary impetus for the passage of the legislation.

“The Antiquities Act was written to protect Native American artifacts on public lands,” said Alfred Lomahquahu, vice chairman to the Hopi Nation and a member of the coalition’s board. “But this is the first time tribes have ever come together to call on the President to use the Antiquities Act.”


This map, one of several included in the proposal for the Bears Ears National Monument, depicts how tribal people view the region.

With a similar interest in providing facts to support the national-monument proposal, the tribes invested six years building an extensive inventory, a cultural map describing the relationship of a broad base of native tribes to the area. This included oral storytelling, archaeological data, locations of more than 100,000 sites including Puebloan village sites, Navajo sweat buildings and sheep corrals and Ute horse trails; herb-gathering and medicinal language and use, as well as documented evidence involving arts and ceremony, often referred to as traditional knowledge.

The Bears Ears movement brought together leaders of the tribes with traditional links to the land in southern Utah. At a meeting held at Towoac in mid-July critical decisions were made that expanded the work accomplished by the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah to include four additional Southwestern tribes with links to the ancestral land. Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Navajo Nation supported the effort. Tribal leaders from Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni agreed to formally unite.

The following day they met with senior federal officials from Washington D.C. within the proposed monument site, described on the Bears Ears website as a meeting “in a clearing, in a sunny ponderosa pine forest directly below the majestic natural Bears Ears formation.”

The five tribes adopted an MOU setting forth the mission, function and procedures for the coalition. “I know that if we all can go through this together and fight this together, we’re going to make a stronger union than if we go alone,” said Lomahquahu. “I think we’re going to be a great model for everyone else out there. We can make a really big footprint.”

At the press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing the monument proposal, Eric Descheenie, co-chair of the Inter-Tribal Coalition and special adviser to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, told the audience that the moment has come for healing. “This is a day about a people’s movement, a humanistic endeavor, and this is about collaborative management. It comes very much from the heart of Indian country.”


Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute tribal council member, represents the Ute Mountain Ute, White Mesa Ute and Ouray Uintah Ute tribes on the Bears Ears coalition.

Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe councilmember, traveled to D.C. as a member of the tribal delegation. Her mother is from the Uintah Tribe in Fort Duchesne, Utah. She was raised at her father’s home at Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal land and is a graduate of Montezuma-Cortez High School.

“I was in Washington a few years ago and read a news article about the Utah Public Lands Initiative and the Utah Diné Bikéyah,” she said. “It talked about the effort to include the people from White Mesa. Although I was raised in Towaoc I have knowledge of family in White Mesa.

“The project was seeking elders who had stories to tell but the project had little resources to fund the work and so it challenged me. I went to assist Malcolm Lehi [representative of White Mesa] for the sake of supporting the White Mesa people, the elders, the grandmothers. At some point it became very personal to me. I said to myself, ‘These are my people. I have to know more,’ and I began my own research.”

Boundary lines

Three boundaries of the area proposed for the monument are provided by natural formations. The Colorado and San Juan rivers mark the west. The low bluffs and high mesas and plateaus from White Mesa up to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah mark the east and north. The southern side of the 1.9-million-acre parcel is bordered by the northern edge of the Navajo Reservation.

The monument essentially stretches broadly over the land west of Blanding at Comb Ridge to the Colorado River and north to Canyonlands.

“Our map doesn’t have any state lines,” Whiteskunk told the Free Press. “It wasn’t us that drew those blue lines [U.S. maps]. We didn’t have lines. In the beginning, this is what it was and it continues to be from our point of view.”

In the proposal map, Bureau of Land Management areas mesh with national park and national-forest lands. Long stretches of the monument’s southern border and part of the west are contiguous or overlie the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. A National Recreation Area lies in the southwest corner while Canyonlands National Park runs adjacent to the proposed monument for a lengthy portion of Bears Ears’ western boundary. Natural Bridges National Monument is located within the proposed monument. The Abajo Mountains, Dark Canyon, Elk Ridge, and surrounding terrain within the Manti-La Sal National Forest would also be included.


The monument is treasured ancestral land for the tribes, yet it is also public land owned by U.S. citizens. According to the Bears Ears website, the effort to preserve the place has always been premised on collaborative management between the tribes and the federal government.

The coalition is pursuing a sovereign-nation- to-federal-government approach, requesting the President initiate collaborative tribal co-management of the monument.

To that end, the proposal calls for an unusual management arrangement.

A Bears Ears Management Commission would be created to be the policymaking and planning body for the monument. It would have eight members – one from each tribe and one from each federal agency overseeing lands included in the monument (the BLM, Forest Service, and Park Service). The tribal members would receive salaries.

The commission would have authority over the monument manager.

The commission would set policy within the bounds of the proclamation, the management plan, and any MOUs or MOAs adopted in connection with the proclamation.

If the collaborators cannot agree, the proposal states, “the dispute will go to mediation. If that fails, then the Secretary of Interior or Agriculture makes the final decision.”

Whiteskunk is confident about the expertise of the coalition group. “We all agreed from the beginning that we need to be unified and organized in this effort, we need to be the best we can be. Our co-chairmen, Alfred Lomahquahu, and Eric Descheenie have great leadership qualities.” She describes the first time the tribes sat down together it was, “a time of respect and reconciliation, Navajo next to Hopi, Ute beside Zuni beside Navajo. We applaud the immense amount of diligent work the Utah Diné Bikéyah did before the coalition became the official proposing entity. It was hard work. We quickly dedicated ourselves to the timeline and the presentation in Washington. There is a great healing in the coalition and it extends to the land, and to all people, including non-natives.”

The proposal describes the co-management plan at Bears Ears as a first-ever opportunity to truly infuse Native values into public-lands administration by “pulling upon both indigenous knowledge and Western science. … The enterprise of honoring and using both bodies of thought and experience, and thus mediating across knowledge systems, can be a unique contribution of this monument. As such, their work can both enrich on-the-ground conditions and produce cutting-edge research for land managers everywhere.”

Stumbling blocks

Whiteskunk admits there are stumbling blocks. One is the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA.

SITLA lands are parcels managed by the trust for the exclusive benefit of state institutions or beneficiaries, as designated by Congress. Because these lands are held in trust, they differ greatly from public lands and are more similar to private lands. About 6 percent of the state’s acreage is set aside as trust land to generate revenue for beneficiaries, primarily (96 percemt) public schools. SITLA manages the land portfolio for each beneficiary, generating revenue through oil, gas, and mineral leases, rent, and royalties; real estate development and sales; and surface estate sales, leases, and easements.

The Utah State Board of Education is charged with oversight of the state’s efforts to generate revenue from those school lands. An article posted on the Trust Land Administration website reports that more than 157,000 acres of trust lands would be captured within the boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears monument.

Tim Donaldson, the School Children’s Trust Director for the state BOE, writes that, “Monument designations would inevitably capture hundreds of thousands of acres of school trust lands, rendering them undevelopable instead of providing revenue to directly support K-12 education as Congress intended.”

SITLA Director Kevin Carter explained, “If conservation designations are made, they must be done in a way that holds schools harmless financially. That might mean identifying lands of comparable value up front and providing for costs of exchanging those lands.”

Whiteskunk said the coalition is working to solve the SITLA problem.

The other, she says, is the San Juan County Energy Zone map.

Energy zone

According to the timeline posted on the Bears Ears website, the San Juan County commissioners, without consulting the tribes or informing Diné Bikéyah, urged the Utah State Legislature to pass HB 393, a bill to modify the Utah resource management plan for federal lands, sponsored by Michael Noel, RDistrict 73. The group alleges that the zone undermines major portions of the Bears Ears proposal by designating the land as an Energy Zone where development is streamlined and grazing, energy and mineral development are declared to be the highest and best use.

San Juan County Planner Nick Sandberg told the Free Press that the state-produced legislation became law on March 23. San Juan County was one of several counties included in the bill, he said. “Another is Uintah County where there is oil and gas, uranium and vanadium and mining resources. The Utah Public Lands draft [structure] didn’t offer a good way to delineate mining districts, but the EZ map does.”

He described the identified areas, such as those with uranium and vanadium, as simply locations garnered from the USGS sources. The higher-extraction potential concentrations fall in the eastern part of the county, east of State Highway 191. Some of the energy-zone map falls on Navajo land.

“We have met with the Navajo government to assure them that we have no authority over the development of the resources, but that if they chose to develop we will support that decision,” Sandberg said. Just because a mineral has been identified doesn’t mean it could be cost-effectively refined, he said. “The map just helps streamline and expedite the process.

“The energy-zone legislation was ongoing at the time the county was deliberating the Utah Public Lands submissions [from stakeholders]. We did try to not make those overlap Bears Ears areas. A good example is along the Colorado River. We stopped the boundary for the energy zone at the rim of the canyon above the river at Hatch Point, for instance.”

There are concerns about the timeline of getting the proposed federal legislation enacted and whether it would supersede a monument designation.

“Probably not,” Sandberg admits. “The feds generally trump the state.” Under the coalition’s proposed co-management system, existing mineral leases would still be valid and development can commence; however, new leases or mining claims would not be allowed.

Grazing-permit holders would also be allowed to continue grazing livestock, with better management to protect sacred sites, plants, and natural areas.


The designation would not change any land ownership. Tribes and agency officials would be working together as equals to make joint decisions, and the public and key stakeholders would have opportunity to contribute to the development of plans and policies.

The BLM and Forest Service are required to identify the cultural values, religious beliefs, traditional practices, and legal rights of Native American people when making management decisions. But under the Bears Ears proposal, Native American uses would be elevated above other uses for the first time.

The proposed monument would be open to all members of the public.

The plan outlines basic management regulations that provide for continued traditional uses of the land, such as collection of wood, plants and medicinal herbs. Hunting with permits will continue to be managed by the State of Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources.

The majority of sacred places, such as ancient cliff dwellings, that are open to public access now would remain open. In the event site instability or other visitation threatens the sites, special accommodations would be made for Native American ceremonial visitation.

While no roads will be closed by the designation itself, it would instigate a new travel-management planning process that includes full public involvement.

Visitors will still be allowed to camp, hike, backpack, climb, build campfires, pick pine nuts, mountain-bike, bring pets, ride horses or drive ATVs if Bears Ears becomes a national monument or NCA. However, it is still illegal under federal law to collect arrowheads, potsherds or any cultural antiquities.

Parts of the Bears Ears monument could be declared wilderness areas. If so, new road construction would not be not permitted. Boundaries of existing roads can be drawn to include deeper setbacks on both sides of the road. Personal collection of firewood or plants would be allowed but no mechanized equipment could be used, just as it is now in the current wilderness study areas.

Time for healing

In a joint statement issued from the Utah congressional delegation in Washington on the day the proposal was presented, Bishop and Chaffetz reconfirmed their intent to reach out to the coalition.

“The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is an important stakeholder in the Public Lands Initiative. The Coalition represents many Native American voices that have an interest in how lands in San Juan County are managed.… Our offices have now received over 65 detailed proposals from various stakeholder groups regarding land management in eastern Utah. We remain committed to reviewing each proposal and producing a final PLI bill that is balanced and broadly supported.”

At the press conference in Washington, the tribes emphasized that the Bears Ears momument proposal is an opportunity to bring people together, including Bishop and Chaffetz.

“It’s not just for us to get healed,” said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah. “It’s for our adversaries to be healed too. We can come out dancing together.”

“The healings have already started,” added Whiteskunk.

From November 2015. Read similar stories about , .