President Barack Obama could decide whether to designate the 1.9 million–acre region known as Bears Ears as a national monument by the end of the year, according to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
If not by then, Obama will definitely decide before he leaves office, Jewell told Indian Country Media Network during a three-day tour of the area.
Five tribes are asking for the designation under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the President signing power to create such monuments on federal land. The proposal drew criticism and support as its creators and the opposition had a chance to speak directly with Jewell and other top federal officials at a public hearing in Bluff, Utah. People spoke passionately about the area and its history, which dates back thousands of years.
“We have not made up our minds on what way to go,” said Jewell during the hearing. “We’re here to listen.”
Jewell, directors of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service and government officials did just that, listening to more than 50 people representing local tribes, ranchers, politicians, recreationalists and environmentalists. A total of 150 people crammed into the hearing room in Bluff, Utah, about 60 miles south of Bears Ears. Outside, more than 1,000 people who had traveled from around the region listened on a PA system. Jewell and her colleagues also hiked portions of Bears Ears, observing petroglyphs and the terrain firsthand.
Those who gave testimony—from descendants of Mormon pioneers who settled in the area, to rock climbers discovering ancient sites, to Native people who have seen their wells depleted and water contaminated by area natural resource development—spoke passionately about this largely pristine desert, a blanket of red-brick earth, waves of mesas, large, jutting rock formations and juniper dotting the land.
Many Navajos, Utes and other tribes who support the Bears Ears monument, named after two 9,000-foot twin buttes, say the land is sacred and important for medicine gathering, wood and ceremonies.
“There is nothing more important about tribal sovereignty than protecting Indian nations’ languages, cultures, beliefs, and indeed our existence as Indian people,” Navajo Attorney General Ethel B. Branch said.
“Our proposal is not about exclusion—it’s about education and partnership,” said Carleton Bowekaty of the Pueblo of Zuñi, one of the five tribes requesting the designation.
But several Navajos and at least one Ute, including a group from Blue Mountain Dine and San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, spoke against the designation, citing general distrust with the federal government.
“We have suffered from all the treaties that have been broken,” Benally said. “I’m very disheartened by the misinformation and also by the dividing the sisters and brothers in this community.”
Benally supports a bill filed by Utah’s congressional delegation and introduced in the House as an ostensible alternative to the tribal proposal. The bill would designate 4.6 million acres of land for conservation, and allocate 1.1 million acres for recreation and natural resource development. The Public Lands Initiative also ensures tribal input, protection of archaeological sites, preserves traditional gathering of plants, and gives managing agencies digression to hire tribal managers to help manage the land, said Casey Snider of U.S. House Rep. Rob Bishop’s office (R-UT).
Though Congress is ready to wrap up its current session in a matter of months, Snider said that hearings on the bill are planned this month and August, with Bishop scheduling bill changes and a congressional hearing in September.
Environmentalists oppose the bill because they say it allows too much for gas and oil development. Tribal leaders have also criticized the bill, saying that their input has not been sought. Initially tribes were working with Utah lawmakers on a proposal, but when communications fizzled earlier this year, tribes broke off and created their own proposal. The Hopi, Zuñi, Ute Mountain Ute, Uinta-Ouray Ute and the Navajo Nation formally asked Obama to designate the area as a national monument last year.
This is the first time that a tribal coalition has proposed a national monument, although other tribes have requested joint management of public lands, said Larry Roberts, Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, who also toured the area and attended the hearing.
The hearing culminated a three-day trip to the area for Jewell and other top federal officials to talk to residents and learn more about the land and its uses. The area falls under jurisdiction of the BLM, which has two law enforcement rangers and a handful of staff to oversee the 1.9 million acres of land containing 100,000 archaeological sites. BLM staff members admit that looting and site disturbance have been a problem. That is corroborated by Josh Ewing of Friends of the Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit organization created to help the BLM manage the area, who said he has seen bones from some of the gravesites thrown about as looters look for pottery or other items to sell.
Ranchers and other area residents told Jewel that creating a monument will bring more visitors and will not stop desecration. As the day wore on, however, a common theme emerged.
“The one thing that we are all consistent on—those of us supporting and opposing—we all want to preserve the land for the younger generation,” area resident Kevin Maryboy said.