Bears Ears: In Defense of National Monuments

Photo by SumikoPhoto/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by SumikoPhoto/iStock / Getty Images
These beautiful landscapes exist within a continuum of Indigenous culture. To forget this is to ignore local voices, local culture and local communities in favor of special interests.

I was originally asked to write an article in response to the proposed fee increase for National Parks, but after recent events in my hometown, Salt Lake City, UT, I feel compelled to write about a different topic. I want to start off with a little bit of background before I dive in so I can get some street cred. I grew up in Utah. I’ve been here for 23 years and I’m proud to be from here. I have skied and hiked for 23 years, rock climbed for four years, and worked in the outdoor industry pretty much my entire working life. So the events that occurred on December 4th were very disheartening.

On December 4th 2017 President Trump landed in Salt Lake City, UT, went to the capitol building, gave a speech, and signed two documents that significantly reduced the size of both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. To give you a ballpark number, approximately 2 million acres of land, collectively, were taken away. This is not a piece to bash Trump; this is to inform you as to why we, the people of the outdoor community, think the land needs to be protected.

The argument from Trump is that the land should be taken out of federal government hands and given back to local government. Sounds reasonable right?— to “restore the rights to this land to your citizens” as Trump claimed in his speech? Is that what just occurred? A lot of the language being thrown around is misleading. Prior to being established as a national monument, Bears Ears consisted of multiple Wilderness Studies co-managed by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States Forest Service (USFS) and local tribal sovereign nations. After being established as a national monument, the land continued to be co-managed by BLM, USFS and local Tribes.

This isn't a story of locals versus Washington outsiders. After all, Bears Ears is public land that belongs to all of us. Despite Trump's divisive rhetoric, he isn't giving local land back to local government. Nor is this an issue of "states rights" versus "federal overreach" as the President claimed. The only thing Trump restored is the likelihood that the land will be parceled off for uranium mining or oil and gas development. If you don’t live in Utah then you don’t understand that this state is run like a business not a government. The top priority has always been money. 

The discussion about “federal overreach” ignores the fact that local people—not Washington outsiders—fought for Bears Ears to become a national monument. 

Land Management

Well just give it back to Indigenous People you say? It's true the 1.3+ million acres which constituted Bears Ears National Monument are ancestral lands for the Navajo, Zuni, Ute Indian, Hopi and Ute Mountain sovereign nations. This includes cliff dwellings, over 100,000 archaeological sites, and sacred areas integral to medicine gathering, religious ceremonies and traditional knowledge. So why can't the Tribes manage Bears Ears? Wouldn't that keep local land in local hands? Prior to being established as a national monument, the land was managed by a coalition of five Tribes partnering with BLM and USFS. In October 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition proposed that former President Obama establish a national monument via the Antiquities Act as the best way to collaboratively manage the land and protect sacred sites within Bear Ears. The discussion about "federal overreach" ignores the fact that local people--not Washington outsiders--fought for Bears Ears to become a national monument. 

Photo by lightphoto/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by lightphoto/iStock / Getty Images

How is a national monument managed by BLM any different from a wilderness study managed by BLM? Why is this debate couched in partisan terms like "state's rights" when Bears Ears is federally managed public land? While Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante have been dramatically reduced in size the land isn’t going back to private citizens. It will continue to be managed by the federal government so what's the big deal? We protest because national monuments and wilderness studies aren’t afforded equal protection.

National monuments are designated to protect a cultural or natural landmark like the 100,000+ archaeological sites located within Bears Ears' 1.3 million acres or the priceless fossils within Grand Staircase’s 1.7 million acres. A national monument designation doesn't restrict all usage of the land--that's misinformation. It may have restrictions on hunting, fishing and motor vehicle use. Or it may not. It does protect cultural sites. Yes, motor vehicle use was restricted within Bears Ears National Monument in order to protect archaeological sites. On the other hand, grazing was not restricted. After Bears Ears received monument status, a Monument Advisory Commission was established to ensure all voices would be heard from local ranchers, to tribal members to San Juan County officials and outdoor recreationists.

It's also important to center Indigenous culture in this debate. Bears Ears isn't a pristine wilderness prime for uranium mining and energy corridors. Grand Staircase Escalante isn't an untouched wilderness ready to be auctioned for coal mining. These beautiful landscapes exist within a continuum of Indigenous culture. To forget this is to ignore local voices, local culture and local communities in favor of special interests. To do so is to disregard our heritage. Bears Ears is a cultural and natural landmark and it deserves our protection. President Trump's decision isn't about returning the land to local people. It's about stripping the land of protections.  It's offensive to say that Trump liberated the land from Washington and gave it back to Utah. The land is still federally managed; he just opened it up to mining and oil and gas. 

Can National Monuments Be Multi-Use?

Another argument is from some of the rural people that inhabit this area. Southern Utah locals feel as if their homes and lands were taken away with the establishment of the monuments. They can’t hunt, fish or live a certain way since the establishment of so many national parks and monuments. That is completely understandable but a national monument designation is up to the challenge of balancing the complex needs of the land and local communities to include grazing permits, hunting, fishing and even designated areas for motorized vehicles while still increasing protections for archaeological and cultural sites. 

According to Pew Trust, “hiking, camping, fishing and other nonmotorized activities on BLM lands generated an estimated $1.8 billion in 2014.” In Utah, traditional jobs in extractive industries are being replaced with jobs in outdoor industry. While economic transition is never easy this ensures Utah’s economic viability in a future that may not include coal mining jobs. After all, Utah is home to some of the most popular destinations within the National Park Service and, until recently, hosted the biannual outdoor retailer trade show; an industry which contributes 887 billion dollars annually in direct consumer spending and has led to the creation of 7.6 million jobs.

So where does the outdoor community come in?

The federal government has allowed local groups like the Salt Lake Climber Alliance to create and fund stewardships of these areas to maintain them and clean them up as well. On the National level there is the Access Fund amongst other groups that are supported by Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to help determine how best to recreate and still preserve these areas. Who do you think cleans up all the trash/litter and maintains the trails and puts signs up letting you know what you are about to step on prehistoric moss that is over millions of years old? BLM and NPS--federal agencies.

There are millions of people that recreate in national parks and monuments, and although there might be limits on recreation, there is a significant effort to protect and preserve the land for future generations to enjoy as well. Rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking and hiking are integral to a lot of these locations; allowing them to thrive in the spring, summer and fall. Outdoor recreation absolutely can and does co-exist with federally managed land to include National Monuments.

We simply don’t trust the local government to do what is right for this land. We have tried to elect officials that best represent our beliefs, but people in the outdoor community are only a small demographic here in Utah, believe it or not. There are still many answers that we have not received from the offices of Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator Mike Lee. Without the national monument designation who will protect these sacred sites from being vandalized? Who will protect the land from being leased for mining or oil and gas development?  These are unanswered and IGNORED questions. There has been no guarantee or plan made to ensure the protection of these lands from Utah’s local government. There hasn’t even been a discussion about the future of these lands with the public. Until these questions are answered and guarantees are made that these lands will truly remain public and properly maintained the outdoor community will continue to fight and keep these lands under federal protection.