Guest commentary: Keep fighting for Bears Ears National Monument
For over 80 years, indigenous people, connected for untold generations to a most unusual and enchanting portion of southwest Utah’s landscape, urged the United States government to protect their homeland. None of those people who started that effort walk upon the Earth with us today, but hopefully, their labor of love wasn’t in vain.
That homeland, Bears Ears National Monument, was established by President Barack Obama in December 2016 at the request of five Native American tribes, who spent six of those 80 years in public meetings developing their plan for management and protection of the land and cultural resources. Those sovereign nations are the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.
With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump betrayed their efforts Dec. 4 by reducing Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and splitting the monument into two separate units, which don’t even include the iconic and sacred twin buttes for which Bears Ears was named after. Both presidents drew upon the Antiquities Act of 1906 to justify their authority in establishing the national monument, in Obama’s case, and vastly reducing its size in Trump’s case (though the legality of this reduction is unclear).
The Antiquities Act gives presidents broad discretion to protect “historic landmarks … and other objects of historic or scientific interest… (by designating the area/object as a national monument) the limits of which shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
In July 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was formed by the five tribes above. The mission of this historic alliance was to protect and conserve the Bears Ears cultural landscape, including more than 100,000 known indigenous sites dating back to 11,000 B.C. Their recommendation for protection was a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. The Obama administration settled on 1.35 million acres for protection.
Having hiked that landscape, fought fires there and visited as many archaeological sites as possible, I can say that anything less than 1.35 million acres would imperil significant sites and traditional cultural objects left out of that original monument.
This is important when you consider the words of the Antiquities Act, coupled with Trump’s supposed reason for significantly reducing the monument in his 2016 proclamation “(to make it) the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
The Bureau of Land Management released the draft monument management plan for Bears Ears without any meaningful participation by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. And a tribal commission still does not exist. Instead of having representation from an elected member of each of the five tribes on the required Monument Advisory Committee, the BLM wants to seat only two “Native American stakeholders who must be from Utah.”
This fast-tracked effort is flawed. Shrinking of the monument by 85 percent is excessive, and it unconscionably disrespects the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
It doesn’t take much reading of the draft environmental impact statement to know that preferred alternative D does not protect the cultural resources of this hollowed-out version of the original monument.
Comments on the BLM’s draft management plan for the reduced Bears Ears Monument are due Thursday. As you write comments, let your conscience guide you while thinking on both the betrayal of indigenous people and of ourselves in yet another example of this administration’s failure to adequately protect our public land.
Please submit comments at eplanning.blm.gov.
Bill Kight retired from the White River as the public affairs officer in 2016 after 38 years of government public service. For 30 years, Kight worked as an archaeologist and heritage resource manager among the Navajo, Zuni, Acoma and Ute Indians of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. He is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and Frontier Museum.
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