Bears Ears is a National Monument in southeast Utah. It borders Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon Recreation Area. It was dedicated by President Obama in his final days in office. It is being reviewed under the current administration. This declaration of protected land was well within his jurisdiction through the Antiquities Act, signed in by President Roosevelt in 1906. The Antiquities Act allows the president to create National Monuments from federal lands. The intention of these monuments is for preserving nature and culture or preserving land in the name of science.
Bears Ears is particularly controversial National Monument. It is four times larger than Canyonlands, its neighboring national park and the biggest national park in Utah. Furthermore, there are many supporters and critics because it is such a substantial piece of land at 1,351,849 acres. In designating Bears Ears, President Obama had the support of the Native American tribes that have sacred land within the area along with many Utah residents. The critics came in the form of the Governor of Utah, state legislators, and residents living near Bears Ears who did not want a rather large federal government presence near their land. This controversy only heightened with the coming of the Trump Administration.
Utah has an interesting political climate that in the 2016 election gave their state majority to Donald Trump. Utah has voted for the Republican presidential candidate since the 1968 election. Locally, it has the state government and most rural areas that are quite conservative, while its capital city of Salt Lake City is quite liberal. It is the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons, whose following is predominately conservative. Finally, Utah has a large population of environmentalists and people interested in outdoor recreation who generally do not have a conservative outlook when it comes to protected land.
Bears Ears has really brought out that controversy. Very early on into President Trump’s term, he requested that Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, investigate the latest lands put aside under the Antiquities Act during the Obama administration. Mr. Zinke suggested that the land dedicated to Bears Ears be significantly rolled back, which caused excitement in some people and dread in others. Zinke did not think the monument was the best use of land and suggested that all of the land be rolled back except historic sites and prehistoric dwellings. He also suggested that within those historic sites the local tribes have the authority to co-manage them, which would give the indigenous communities authority but only in designated areas.
Environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, were outraged by this decision. Patagonia, the clothing company that prides itself on being environmentally conscious, started a petition in favor of not reducing the size of Bears Ears. Driving through Salt Lake City there is at least one “Stand with Bears Ears” sign on every block. But Utah’s capital city is about four-hour drive from the monument. The issue closer to home has residents divided. Locals living in these rural areas, despite being surrounded by national parks, do not have a particular affinity for the federal government. They do not want the federal government encroaching on their land. Furthermore, Bears Ears and the surrounding area has substantial oil beneath it that some are interested in developing. The prospect of money from oil drilling is exciting to the rural community who has not really seen immense amounts of money come into their community. Even if this money will result in environmental degradation in a currently protected area.
Many forget that in addition to environmental degradation, this land is sacred to Native American groups in the area and to develop on it would go directly against the tribes’ wishes. One cannot help but notice the correlation between the issues at Bears Ears and Standing Rock. To give some background, Standing Rock was a protest in April of 2016 in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline being constructed through sacred Sioux land. The protests have now moved to the courts while the Dakota Access Pipeline is being constructed. The likelihood of the indigenous communities becoming even more outraged by the rolling back of Bears Ears is likely if they are not consulted in the process.
President Trump has a delicate situation on his hands as he decides the fate of Bears Ears and many other national monuments at the end of August, especially considering one of Trump’s first days in office he expedited the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It seems that indigenous rights and environmental protection have had overlapping agendas in the recent past. It will be interesting to see how they join together in the future.
“Energy Company Looking to Strike Oil on Bears Ears’ Doorstep,” The Salt Lake Tribune, accessed August 16, 2017, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=4554899&itype=CMSID;
Julie Turkewitz and Coral Davenport, “Interior Secretary Recommends Shrinking Borders of Bears Ears Monument,” The New York Times, June 12, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/us/interior-secretary-public-lands-utah-bears-ears.html;
“Key Moments In The Dakota Access Pipeline Fight,” NPR.org, accessed August 16, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/22/514988040/key-moments-in-the-dakota-access-pipeline-fight;
“Native American Connections | Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition,” accessed August 16, 2017, https://bearsearscoalition.org/proposal-overview/ancestral-and-modern-day-land-users/;
“Stand with Standing Rock,” Stand With Standing Rock, accessed August 16, 2017, http://standwithstandingrock.net/;
“Statement from The Nature Conservancy in Utah Concerning Interior’s Review of Bears Ears National Monument | The Nature Conservancy,” accessed August 16, 2017, https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/utah/newsroom/statement-from-the-nature-conservancy-in-utah-concerning-interiors-review-of.xml.