Five tribes formally unveiled their proposal on October 15 for a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, which would protect lands in southeastern Utah that are both culturally significant and ecologically imperiled.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made of representatives from the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah & Ouray Ute tribes, hosted a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington and published their full proposal online.
“We are here to propose to President Barack Obama a national monument for what we commonly refer to as the Bear Ears,” said Eric Descheenie. Navajo, co-chair of the Bears Ears Coalition along with Alfred Lomaquahu, Hopi. “This is a day about healing. This is a day about a people’s movement, a humanistic endeavor, and this is about collaborative management. It comes very much from the heart of Indian country.”
Including the five tribes participating in the Bears Ears Coalition, 25 pueblos and tribes in total have expressed their support for the proposal. Citing the spiritual and cultural significance of the land, as well as threats from grave-robbing, destructive off-road vehicle use and mining, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has also issued a resolution, urging President Obama “to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to declare the Bears Ears National Monument and, by doing so, provide permanent protection for these lands.”
The proposal lays out an unprecedented model for federal-tribal collaborative land management, under which tribes would be elevated to true government-to-government status, from the management plan stage all the way through day-to-day operations. Although tribes are regularly consulted as part of federal agency actions, these consultations are often formalistic and relegate tribes to the position of interest groups.
The Bears Ears proposal competes with a legislative proposal called the Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI), advanced by Utah Congressional Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, that has lain dormant in the House for several years. As part of its proposal, the Bears Ears Coalition has included a timeline documenting years of attempts to participate in the PLI; Coalition members have been rebuffed at every turn.
“We have tried to participate in the Public Lands Initiative,” Descheenie said at the press conference. “We have not been taken seriously, and our voices have never been heard.”
Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, along with representatives Bishop and Chaffetz, issued a joint statement in response to the Coalition’s announcement, calling the Coalition “an important stakeholder” in the PLI and indicating that the politicians “remain committed to reviewing each proposal and producing a final PLI bill that is balanced and broadly supported.” The PLI still has some support among residents of San Juan Country, Utah, which overlaps with the proposed Bears Ears Monument. Some Utah locals, including several Navajo tribal members living in San Juan County, oppose a monument designation that would include a mining withdrawal and could restrict other uses.
Critics of the PLI say that effort is likely to fail because it calls for an end to the popular, Roosevelt-era Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to set aside culturally significant lands for conservation. Presidents from both parties have designated nearly 150 national monuments, including Grand Canyon National Monument, which became Grand Canyon National Park. In contrast to the PLI, the Bears Ears Coalition is asking the President to use the Antiquities Act in designating Bears Ears. Furthermore, Coalition members say “stakeholder” falls far short of the government-to-government relationship to which they are entitled.
“We have a unique relationship with the federal government, founded on the backs of our ancestors and manifested in tribal treaties,” Descheenie said. “We are not stakeholders. We are relatives to this land.”
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a council member of Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and a Coalition member, noted that the U.S. government bears a trust responsibility to each of the federally recognized tribes—and the Bears Ears proposal calls upon the federal government to honor that responsibility.
“We’re standing here, a part of a Coalition, with solutions,” she said. “We’re here as sovereign nations, wielding a tool that our grandparents never even knew.”
Lopez-Whiteskunk said she believes the Coalition has been chosen to encourage the healing that will come from protecting the ancestral lands, including burial areas, of numerous tribes.
“We’ve been chosen by our ancestors to speak,” she said, “and to bring forth the huge issue of allowing them to rest in peace.”
Philip Vicente, head councilman from the Pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico, added that Bears Ears is still a place where tribal leaders and medicine people go to conduct their ceremonies.
“Bears Ears land is a unique land,” he said. “We visit for the purpose of attaining health. When we speak about health, we’re not speaking about our health. We’re speaking about everybody’s health, and the land also.”
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.