Obama Signs Bears Ears, Gold Butte Into National Monuments
After months of contention between local elected leaders, environmental groups, Native American tribes and the federal government, President Barack Obama ended the conflict surrounding the Bears Ears area in San Juan County Wednesday afternoon by making the landmark into a national monument.
“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” he wrote in a statement. “Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.
“Following years of public input and various proposals to protect both of these areas, including legislation and a proposal from tribal governments in and around Utah, these monuments will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection,” he continued. “We also have worked to ensure that tribes and local communities can continue to access and benefit from these lands for generations to come.”
In addition to the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument, Obama signed in the Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada. The national monument designations were done under the Antiquities Act.
The push and pull between proponents of the national monument and Rep. Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative had largely focused on environmental preservation, access for other land use and continued access for local Native American tribes which have used the land for many generations and have ascribed spiritual significance to it.
Some groups rejoiced at the news, such as the Friends of Cedar Mesa.
“Four of Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks were first protected as National Monuments via presidential action – despite some vocal local opposition at the time they were designated,” said Josh Ewing, executive director for Friends of Cedar Mesa in a statement released shortly after the announcement. “There’s no place more deserving or needing of protection than the Bears Ears. This landscape surely would have been protected many years ago if it were located anywhere but Utah. We hope time and cooler minds will prevail as we find common ground in working together to steward this place and preserve it as close as possible to what it is like today.”
The Native American Inter-Tribal Coalition also applauded the move.
As a coalition of five Native American tribes in the region, we are confident that today’s announcement of collaborative management will protect a cultural landscape that we have known since time immemorial,” the group said in a statement. “Our connection with this land is deeply tied to our identity, traditional knowledge, history and culture. We look forward to working with the current and future administrations to fully and properly administer these lands for all to enjoy.”
Proponents of both the national monument and the initiative had boasted having support of various Native American groups. In an interview in September, Bishop said his initiative would give greater protections to the land by setting them in congressional stone, rather than administration by the BLM. Bishop also said his initiative had greater goals than the preservation of a single area—it was geared towards facilitating balanced and multi-faceted use of land throughout Eastern Utah. However, he said, a national monument would essentially gut his bill because the initiative relied on certainty of land use, which such an action would eliminate.
On Wednesday, he released a video statement, in which he said the designation was regrettable and contrary to the majority of people who will be affected most.
“Utah is saddened by this announcement today. It is alien to the desires of the overwhelming majority of Utahns, and also alien to the overwhelming number of Native Americans who live in this area, who will use this area, who approached us on how they wanted to function on this land. None of those desires are going to be accomplished by a monument designation,” said Bishop. “It is sad that there are special interest groups that feel that they are empowered, that feel that they can get the president to bend to their every will. Unfortunately, with today’s announcement, maybe there’s some truth to that.”
Bishop also addressed Obama, and vowed to take steps to reverse the designation.
“Mr. President, I want you to know we are saddened by this abuse of the Antiquities Act. It is sad that this entire process has been done in secrecy and shadows. And Mr. President, I want you to know that as Utahns, we will use every tool at our disposal to do the right thing, whether it be legislative action, judicial action, even executive action, because what we have seen so far has been a poor procedure; it’s a poor policy, and it reflects poorly on your legacy. As Utahns, we will fight to right this wrong,” he said.
State and other local leaders had largely banded together in support of Bishop’s initiative—and against the possibility of a national monument—citing more autonomy and it being a more democratic way of protecting the land. San Juan County Commissioners Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams and Rebecca Benally, released a statement opposing the national monument, saying the monument was pushed by environmental groups, out-of-state tribal leaders and corporate interests, rather than locals.
“The push for a monument did not originate from those most impacted by this decision; instead, it came from outside special interest groups who used deception and collusion to drown out local voices. San Juan County has only to look to our neighbors in Garfield and Kane counties to see the devastating consequences this process produces—the destruction of archaeological and cultural resources, the closure of public schools, and a shattered economy,” stated the commissioners. “Our families, our local tribes, and our community deserve better—they deserve to be heard and respected. As elected representatives of San Juan County, we call on Congress and the incoming president to heed the voices of locals who care for and love our county’s public lands the most by rescinding this monument designation.”