Five Four Corners-area tribes have united to propose a 1.9 million–acre Bears Ears National Monument that would be the first truly collaborative land management effort between Native Americans and the federal government.
The Bears Ears are majestic twin plateaus that rise above pristine landscapes between Moab, Utah and the Arizona border. The greater Bears Ears area is a giant triangle bounded on the west by the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, to the South by the Navajo Nation, and on the east by Canyonlands National Park. The proposed designation already includes parts of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Manti-La Sal National Forest, Natural Bridges National Monument and several renowned rock climbing areas, the most famous of which is called Indian Creek.
All of the land figures into the histories of numerous tribes—it is full of historic homes, villages, granaries and ancient trails—and is still used today, especially by Navajo and Ute people, for the gathering of herbs, medicines and firewood. A primary motivation for protecting it is the threat of increased visitation and damage to some of the most sacred sites within the proposed monument; the heart of these is the Bears Ears formation itself.
The Coalition is minting a blueprint for a degree of co-management that has never been tried before. It embodies true government-to-government relations and truly collaborative decision-making on all aspects of running a protected mass of land. They’ll be formally proposing a Presidential Proclamation in mid-October, in Washington.
“All of our tribes have said we want to push the envelope,” said Eric Descheenie, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and co-chair of the Bears Ears Coalition with Hopi Vice Chairman Alfred Lomaquahu. “We’re tired of consultation. We’re tired of ‘advisory.’ ”
The Bears Ears proposal has evolved from years-long initial efforts by a non-profit conservation group called Utah Diné Bikéyah, or UDB. The Bears Ears Coalition, created on July 17, now includes representatives from the Navajo Nation, the Zuni Nation, and the Hopi, Northern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.
The effort has also garnered support from the All-Pueblo Council of Governors, which includes the leaders from 20 pueblos in New Mexico and Texas, along with numerous conservation groups.
“In the past, the tribes have been separate on various issues,” said Willie Grayeyes, Utah Diné Bikéyah’s chairman. “With this project we stand together, on common ground.”
The Coalition is getting advice and support from heavy-hitting experts including Charles Wilkinson, an author, University of Colorado law professor and former Native American Rights Fund attorney; Steve Martin, who retired as superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park in 2011, and Walt Dabney, who retired as superintendent of Canyonlands National Park in 1999. All agree that the time has come for true co-management.
“Consultation is okay, but it is so ineffective when it comes to getting results from federal agencies,” Wilkinson told the Coalition at a recent meeting. “The need for the kind of collaborative management proposed here needs to be emphasized. Without that, you’re left with another monument. You’re just another interest group.”
The Coalition envisions that the decision-making body at Bears Ears National Monument, answering directly to the Interior Secretary, will be an eight-member commission, including one representative from each of the five Coalition tribes and one from each of the three land-holding agencies: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service and the National Park Service. The Commission will direct a Monument manager, who will wear the uniform of whichever of the three federal agencies is selected to partner with the Coalition on day-to-day operations; a likely choice would be the BLM, since it owns the most land within the proposed Monument. In turn, that manager would supervise a staff of around 40 people, to start, which would be a mix of agency and tribal employees.
“This would be the first time tribes would have a real voice in co-management. I would see this as being in the driver’s seat. It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Martin said. “If it does come together, it will set a precedent. I think this will scare some of the federal land managers that this would become a model. I don’t think they need to be afraid, because it’s long overdue.”
Martin said he’s enthusiastic about the prospect that the Coalition will see the ambitious plan through.
“This is the most squared-away, professional and peaceful group that’s ever come together on something like this,” he said.
The Commission would navigate the sometimes-sensitive issues of existing uses, as it drafts a land management plan. Among the uses likely to yield deep discussions: grazing, rock climbing, archaeological research and off-road vehicle use. In early discussions on such topics, Commission members have encountered heartfelt differences even among the tribes represented; they know that managing such uses for the public will require creative compromises.
The Coalition members say they’re ready, and through it all, they aim to keep one word in mind: healing. They describe feeling sickened and physically wounded by the grave robbing and the destruction of their spiritual and cultural landscapes. But visiting the land has been a salve for the Coalition members who have gotten the chance. They want to protect Bears Ears partly as a way to perpetuate that.
“It’s not just for us to get healed,” said Grayeyes. “It’s for our adversaries to be healed too. We can come out dancing together.”
Full Disclosure: Anne Minard is a journalist and a law student at the University of New Mexico. She is volunteering for the Bears Ears Coalition as a legal research assistant.