The Battle for Bears Ears
A pair of buttes surrounded by grasses and wildflowers in a quiet corner of San Juan County seems an unlikely stage for conflict, but the fate of Bears Ears has become a matter of fierce debate from Utah to Washington, D.C.
Nearly 2 million acres of land in San Juan County is in line to be signed by executive order into a national monument through the Antiquities Act. Making the Bears Ears region a national monument would aid in conservation of an area the National Trust for Historic Preservation called one of the United States’ “most endangered” historical places in the country, proponents say; meanwhile, opponents criticize the plan for potentially reducing access to locals, particularly to Native Americans whose ancestral use of the area dates back long before our country’s birth.
Meanwhile, efforts to protect this sensitive and endangered region have exposed deep divisions and power struggles—between Native tribal members and coalitions, and between local, state and federal governments—over the best, most inclusive approach to protecting and managing the land.
By Lisa Christensen
Many of those against the idea of making Bears Ears a national monument are instead in favor of a long-awaited bill, the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), recently introduced to Congress by Rep. Rob Bishop, which would affect areas across the state, and, in particular, the Eastern and Southeastern portions of Utah, with an eye toward both conservation and economic development.
In that regard, the initiative is about far more than Bears Ears.
“Bears Ears is one small element of it, but it’s one that has captured a great deal of media print,” Bishop says.
Bears Ears was hardly the overriding purpose of the bill when Bishop began crafting the PLI three years ago, he says. Instead, the initiative was inspired by the often-frustrating clash between businesses, communities and government in the eastern portion of the state—companies want to come and invest in the area, and communities want and need them there, but there is currently no way to guarantee access to some areas. One company, for example, can’t get permits to have power lines cross federal land, Bishop says.
In order to ensure the bill would serve all interested parties fairly, Bishop has had more than 1,200 meetings held since 2013 for the initiative, inviting communities, business executives, ranchers, members of American Indian tribes and others to participate. The PLI itself would encompass 18 million acres of federal land across seven Eastern Utah counties, 4.6 million of which would be set aside for conservation and 1.15 million for new recreation or economic development opportunities, including 18,779 acres for an expansion to Arches National Park.
The goal of the PLI is to give some stability, a final word, he says, to the use of land, with a four-to-one ratio of land use for conservation and recreation, respectively. With specific designations for land use, developers, communities and ranchers can plan for the future and invest in business, tourism and grazing operations confidently. This is especially important for a region that generally feels distrustful of the federal government—the designation of the Grande Escalante Staircase as a National Monument, which restricted many from grazing or other activities that had been carried on for generations, still smarts two decades later.
“I see some people from the development community, grazing community, who have been deceived in the past and don’t trust us to make anything permanent,” says Bishop. “We’re trying to do things that haven’t been done before with people who have never agreed before and prove there’s a way of doing something that alleviates contention and brings finality. That’s the core value of what we’re trying to do. And if I can’t do that, if I can’t bring finality to this issue, then the whole process was for naught.”
Written in stone
The PLI and the National Monument is an either-or issue: If Bears Ears is signed into a national monument before the PLI gets a chance to be voted on, the PLI essentially gets its legs kicked out from under it—not because Bears Ears is a central figure in the bill, but having it designated as a national monument would invalidate the PLI’s efforts to bring permanent use classifications to the land. After all, if a big swath of land could be re-designated with an executive order, Bishop says, what guarantee would companies or communities really have?
“When we talk about finality and ending the question of what can you assume in the future, if you take that finality away, you don’t have a bill,” he says. “If we make all these designations and a president can take it away with the stroke of a pen, those designations don’t matter.”
Although the current proposals for the national monument are favorable to tribal use and other access, Bishop says his concern is for the future. Though President Obama might take into account local wishes for use, land managers in years to come might not care about the local angle or be willing to take input from those being affected by it, he says. With the PLI, all use would be written in stone, in a sense, as statute.
“You haven’t changed the management or ownership, haven’t changed protection designation, but you have turned it over to a land manager who can arbitrarily change how they work with the community. That’s what the problems have been with Grand Staircase. Some land managers have been really good to work with the community, but some have been really crappy with how they work with the community,” he says.
Local support and local control
Bishop’s plan has vocal support from Utah’s political heavy-hitters, including Gov. Gary Herbert. Cody Stewart, director of federal affairs in Herbert’s office, says part of that support rests in the approaches of the measures—legislation verses executive order, and how much say people feel they have in each of those.
“There’s a big difference between something being done to you and something being done with you, and if the decision feels like it’s being made without the input of the residents, they will feel like something’s being done to them, and what that triggers is a very unfortunate set of circumstances where the people feel like their voice doesn’t matter to the political process,” Stewart says.
On the other hand, the PLI process has involved a lot of compromise, he says. Additionally, the PLI enables locals to hold people accountable for how the land is managed. “If the people there, in San Juan County, don’t like this, they can let their representatives know what they think. Under a national monument designation, under an executive order, there’s no recourse.”
Stewart, who himself has attended many of the hundreds of meetings held through the PLI’s creation, says the PLI’s certainty would also give the state a chance to develop a comprehensive economic development plan for the greater Eastern Utah region, which has historically been mostly driven by mining, drilling and other energy-based jobs—and struggled along with those industries as the market has fluctuated.
If Bears Ears does become a national monument, the state will still be developing an economic development plan, but without the PLI’s land-use guarantee, they’ll be more or less back to the drawing board, Stewart says. And, he says, the national monument will only serve to further divide people, making it even harder to find common ground on which to build that plan.
“[The national monument] inhibits our abilities to solve these tough public lands decisions for decades to come. … The well gets soured—the goodwill needed to come to the table and compromise is lost,” he says, noting the PLI would give congress time to work out any kinks in the bill, while the national monument would be a relatively hasty action done before Obama leaves office.
“If [the PLI is] done as we think it would be,” says Stewart, “it would have local support, and a locally supported plan that actually lasts—people have a sense of ownership, and they’re willing to make it last.”
Failing to find balance?
The many versions the PLI went through before finally being introduced in congress this fall were intended to craft legislation that would garner bi-partisan support, but some early supporters of the bill feel its most vital provisions ended up on the cutting-room floor. Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a San Juan County-based conservation group, was involved with the PLI from its infancy. The original version of the bill had both good and bad components, he says, but he feels the current version kept most of the latter and did away with most of the former.
“We were very hopeful that that legislation would be a good solution, a win-win, for conservation and economic development and all sorts of things. Unfortunately, in the end, we believe the PLI will be very negative for conservation and be dramatically bad for the economy, particularly in Bluff, where we’re based,” he says. “… It rolls back protections that currently exist for very important areas. It would have a negative impact on the arches, the scenery, the natural landscapes that we have here that drive a lot of our tourist economy here in Bluff.”
The PLI had the potential to balance conservation with grazing, recreation and energy development, Ewing says, but the way it has ultimately proposed doing those things would be harmful to locals. Although he doesn’t have a lot of love for the national monument, either, he feels that is currently the best way to protect the Bears Ears area.
“A national monument is the only practical way to achieve permanent protection for the landscape and the tourist economy that has built up around it. There are certainly downsides—most of them are ideological; most of them are less real in nature, but perception is reality,” he says.
Ewing doesn’t blame Bishop or Herbert or Obama or any other person so much as the general political process that has led to this particular convergence of less-than-ideal choices. In the 113 years the Antiquities Act has been on the books, no one has thought to protect the area until now, he says, and that represents a failure in the democratic process.
“[My] biggest disappointment is that a lot of folks seem to not be willing to look beyond their traditional entrenched ideologies and try to find something that could work for both sides,” he says. Instead, he believes leaders should focus on maintaining Utah’s “most sustainable industry, which is tourism, which is based on public lands,” while also supporting, for example, energy development that creates jobs. He says preserving lands and supporting economic development doesn’t have to be an either-or choice.
“I think there’s a way it can be done responsibly where they can be both done well,” Ewing says. “I think where the bill ended up, it did not protect the places that sustain our tourism industry and support energy development in a way that’s responsible and that doesn’t have a negative impact on our communities.”
By Adva Biton
While so much else about the region is hotly contested, one thing is not: The Bears Ears region needs to be protected, whether it’s by the Public Lands Initiative or by designating it a national monument. Throughout the strife, this is something people cannot lose sight of, says John Ruple, associate professor of law (research) at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. But while the PLI offers its own benefits, a Ruple says a national monument designation might be the best course of action when it comes to the crux of the matter: protecting and preserving the land.
“The National Trust for Historic Preservation has described [the Bears Ears region] as having over 100,000 archeological sites on it—some of the richest concentrations of our archeological sites in North America. It’s a special place for everyone, including Native Americans who have ancestral ties to that landscape,” says Ruple. “We know that that area is attracting a lot more attention, and it’s getting a lot more use. We’re seeing sites that are being looted by intentional bad actors, and sites that are being damaged by well-intentioned people that are frankly loving it to death. There is an argument for managing the landscape in a way that recognizes its special and fragile nature and allows a more active approach to managing it and protecting its interest.”
The Bears Ears national monument proposal
In response to the desecration and looting of Native American sites, Congress enacted the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the president of the United States the ability to declare national monuments. The issues of 1906, say Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, member of the Mountain Ute Tribal Council and co-chair of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, are not so far removed from the problems of 2016.
“[Bears Ears is] an important aspect in representing our religion and our wellbeing on a daily basis … The biggest threat to that is the looting of graves—there’s so much of that that’s documented and even more so, undocumented instances of it,” says Lopez-Whiteskunk. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. When those destructive behaviors continue and nobody is held responsible or accountable for it, we can’t do anything.”
Five tribes banded together to create the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition: The Hopi tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe. The five tribes drafted the Bears Ears National Monument Proposal after seeing that national monuments under the Obama administration have been generally sensitive to Native needs. The five nations—which tried to work through the Utah Legislature first, says Lopez-Whiteskunk—decided that drafting their own proposal and hoping for a response from Washington, D.C., was the better route to take.
Native voices and representation
Lopez-Whiteskunk bristles at the suggestion that the tribes would advocate for any measure that would limit Native access, as opponents of the monument have suggested, or that the five tribes have somehow had the wool pulled over their eyes. While Lopez-Whiteskunk says she honors opposition, she is an elected leader who is acting in the best interest of her—and the four other—tribes.
“Being an elected leader, I would not advocate for anything that would cut off any access to any tribal member—my tribe, the Mountain Ute tribe, or any other tribe. Each national monument that has been designated, through the legislative route or the Antiquities Act, has been different. So it’s unwise to compare them,” she says. “Our proposal is trying to protect that access, and to work with the agencies to come together and talk about management plans that would include the Native American tribes in establishing and protecting, working on a permitting system to allow tribes to come in and conduct their activities. There’s a variety of different ways and cases where collaborative management has been working between tribes—and we did a lot of research in what has been done and what we can do with what we’re trying to ask for.”
Both Lopez-Whiteskunk and Ruple point to nine Obama-era proclamations, where sensitivity to Native American access is stated identically in each as such: “The Secretaries shall, to the maximum extent permitted by law and in consultation with Indian tribes, ensure the protection of Indian sacred sites and traditional cultural properties in the monument and provide access by members of Indian tribes for traditional cultural and customary uses.”
Further still, the proposal drawn up by the coalition advocates for five tribal leaders to be part of the management commission, allowing them to take part in the management of the area after its designation. The PLI, as it stands, only allows room for one tribal representative (from the Navajo nation) in its planning and implementation advisory committee.
“The PLI does not give adequate substantive voice to those Native Americans that have a cultural and historic connection to this landscape,” says Ruple.
There have also been claims that the tribes, which are not all centered in Utah—and indeed, non-Native voices outside San Juan County as well—should not have a say about what happens to the land, but Ruple postulates that the land belongs to all of America, not just the residents of the county.
“Whose voice matters? Absolutely, residents of Southeast Utah, they have a stake in these lands and deserve a voice in how they’re managed. But that voice cannot come at the exclusion of the rest of Utahns or Americans,” he says. “A lot of us would be very uncomfortable if Gettysburg or Antietam were turned over to local governments to manage, because those are sites of national importance. This is a landscape of national importance, and national constituents deserve a right to weigh in and engage.”
An economic driver
Certainly, there has been concern about the opportunity cost of having a national monument, or what the local population would do if avenues of employment in the energy field were to be taken away. But evidence suggests that national monuments do not hinder the economic growth of rural areas. Ray Rasker, executive director at Headwater Economics, has modeled the economic trajectories of communities adjacent to 17 national monuments in the West. All of the economies expanded—two thirds of them at the same pace or quicker compared to similar counties in the state.
“There’s some accusation that some people make that when a national monument is created, it leads to economic decline. However, when you look at the numbers, they show the opposite—there’s more growth after the designation of the monument than before,” says Rasker. “We know that it causing economic harm is wrong. But it doesn’t demonstrate cause and effect, like if you designate a monument and it magically causes economic growth.”
Rasker says that rural areas are no different from other areas in what’s necessary to create a robust local economy: You still need an educated workforce, the ability to connect to larger markets through an interstate or an airport, and a good healthcare system. But adding a beautiful, protected landscape to that can be an economic driver.
“To put it simply, people care where they live. They like being surrounded by spectacular landscapes,” says Rasker. “But you have to have these other things in place.”