By Sonja Horoshko
and Gail Binkly
Both delight and rage greeted President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument on Wednesday, Dec. 28.
Native American tribes hailed the inclusion of five tribes in management of the monument, while environmentalists and archaeologists praised the idea of protecting 1.35 million acres of fragile desert landscape and stunning red-rock scenery.
The new monument is 550,000 acres shy of a proposal that had been advocated by an intertribal coalition. Still, coalition members said they were honored by the designation on a landscape rich in natural and cultural resources, including more than 100,000 archaeological sites. The land base is considered sacred homelands for the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo Nation and Uintah Ute tribes that comprise the coalition.
“President Obama has been consistent in his commitment to work with Tribal governments, and this historic designation builds on his legacy,” said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye in a statement. “We are particularly pleased that the designation affirms tribal sovereignty and provides a collaborative role for tribes [while] ensuring a seat at the management table.”
Bears Ears National Monument represents the first “truly Native American National Monument in U.S. history,” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Ute Mountain Ute tribal member and former tribal councilwoman, and a coalition member. “We all share gratitude for the courage of President Obama embracing this moment to change history rather than repeat history. We want to continue … better relationships and clear communication, with tribal entities recognized as sovereign voices.”
“The President’s action protects tens of thousands of archaeological sites – exactly the ‘objects’ the Antiquities Act was created to protect – that make the public lands near Bluff so unique,” said the nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in a web posting. “In fact, the Bears Ears Monument contains more cultural sites than any other National Monument or National Park in the United States.”
But elected officials across Utah were nearly unanimous in expressing outrage over the President’s use of the Antiquities Act to protect the area.
“I am deeply disturbed by what has resulted from a troubling process,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, promising to seek to undo the designation under the Trump administration.
Utah Republicans Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz had put forth a legislative alternative called the Public Lands Initiative under which the Bears Ears area would have become two national conservation areas totaling about 1.2 million acres.
But their bill died in Congress, and monument supporters said it was time for Obama to act.
In a video statement, Bishop said Utah was “saddened” by the announcement. He said the monument process had taken place “in secrecy and in shadow” and promised the state would seek all means to overturn the monument, whether through legislative, judicial, or executive action.
“As Utahns, we will fight to right this wrong,” Bishop said.
No president has ever unilaterally overturned another president’s national monument and it is not clear that such an attempt would be legal. However, Congress has the authority to undo monuments or simply to render them meaningless by refusing to fund their management.
The proclamation says the monument will be managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Valid existing rights, including water rights, are to be honored.
An advisory committee established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act and composed of state and local governments, tribes, recreational users, local business owners, and private landowners is to help develop a management plan.
But, as was requested in the intertribal coalition’s proposal, an additional tribal commission consisting of one elected officer each from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe is also established in the declaration. The Bears Ears Commission is to ensure that management decisions affecting the monument reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge. It will provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans.
The co-management commission is a first for tribes on non-reservation federal land.
Utah Diné Bikeyah, the local grassroots organization that began the effort to be included in the Utah federal lands designation process more than six years ago, explained in a statement that the declaration marks the first time Native American tribes have called for and succeeded in protecting their ancestral homelands through a president’s national monument designation.
The proclamation language provides “access for tribal members to continue traditional cultural and customary uses, consistent with the 1996 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, including collection of medicines, berries and other vegetation, forest products, and firewood for personal noncommercial use. . .”
“Rarely do tribal traditional knowledge and the healing powers of such wisdom spill over into national politics so much as to inspire thousands of people from a myriad of
backgrounds,” said Eric Descheenie, Arizona representative-elect and a former co-chairman of the intertribal coalition. “So many people from many walks of life, professions, religious traditions, and industry have championed our truth to the White House to achieve Bears Ears National Monument. I’m proud of our beautiful movement and all the people behind it.”
The proclamation includes an offer to trade public land with the state of Utah. The declaration authorizes the Interior Secretary to pursue an exchange of monument inholdings currently owned by the state and administered by the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) for land of equal value managed by the Bureau of Land Management outside the monument. The deadline on the potential for such an exchange is due on Obama’s desk by Jan. 19, the proclamation states.
Also on Wednesday, Obama issued a proclamation creating Gold Butte National Monument, in Clark County, Nevada. It spans nearly 300,000 acres northeast of Las Vegas and protects cultural resources, geological formations, and plant and wildlife habitat as well as Native American historical sites and areas currently used for traditional tribal purposes. Like Bears Ears, the monument area includes abundant rock art, archaeological artifacts, and rare fossils.
In a statement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell praised the designations. “The rock art, ancient dwellings, and ceremonial sites concealed within these breathtaking landscapes help tell the story of people who have stewarded these lands for hundreds of generations,” said Jewell, who visited Bluff, Utah, near Bears Ears, in June.
“Today’s action builds on an extraordinary effort from tribes, local communities, and members of Congress to ensure that these treasures are protected for generations to come, so that tribes may continue to use and care for these lands, and all may have an opportunity to enjoy their beauty and learn from their rich cultural history.”
Former Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah acknowledges the long, patient effort of the many tribal organizers. “The President’s designation is a testament to the will of sovereign Indian nations, as well as the hard work of our people on the ground who worked tirelessly years ago leading up today,” he said. “It was their vision, determination, and purpose rooted in our traditional ways that contributed greatly to today’s shared accomplishment.”
Board members of the Utah Diné Bikeyah gathered in mid-afternoon near Bluff when they heard news of the monument declaration.
“It was time for a ceremony today,” said former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, “and a time to relish for us all, for the moment.” In a telephone call to the Free Press he said that regardless of how much everyone hoped and prayed for the declaration, “as the President’s term wound down, all of a sudden it happened. I kind of don’t know what to do with myself because all along a lot of people said it couldn’t happen. Yet it did. Everyone worked together and for so long. Now, it is here and it was worth every effort.”
He added that the group will hold a community celebration in Monument Valley at the visitors’ center on Jan. 7. Details are to be released later.
“Mormon history, the Constitution and laws, and white man’s history are written on paper,” said Zuni Cultural Resources Advisory Committee Chairman Octavius Seowtewa in a statement. “Our history—the Native history—is written in stone on canyon walls. We celebrate knowing our history at Bears Ears will be protected for future generations, forever.”