On December 4, 2017, President Trump cut millions of acres from two national monuments in Utah. With a simple proclamation, Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced by nearly 50 percent. Bears Ears National Monument was slashed by 85 percent.
Within days, lawsuits were filed to stop Trump’s order. A coalition of Native American tribes, the outdoor retailer Patagonia, and nonprofit preservation organizations all sued, arguing that the president exceeded “the limited authority delegated to his office,” violated “the Antiquities Act and the separation of powers established in the Constitution” and circumvented the law by “attempting to evade that strict limitation” of his power.
A month ago, it seemed the fate of these monuments lay in the courts. Not anymore.
One of the plaintiffs’ key arguments is that the president lacks legal authority to reduce or extinguish national moments—only Congress does. Enter the Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act. Introduced by Representative John Curtis, a Republication from Utah, the bill would make permanent Trump’s reduction to Bears Ears, ending litigation by mooting questions over presidential authority.
As Carleton Bowekaty and Shaun Chapoose of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition recently wrote in The Hill, the Curtis bill is full of doublespeak. Reportedly, Rep. Curtis did not meet with a single tribal official yet his bill claims to “to create the first Tribally managed national monument.” In fact, it was President Obama’s administration, who spent years consulting with Native Americans and established an advisory commission made up of one elected official from each of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute and Zuni tribes to guide Bears Ears’ management. The Curtis bill would alter the commission to include a county commissioner who supports the president, exclude tribes outside Utah, and empower the president to select most commission members. These changes fundamentally undermine tribal rights of self-representation and self-determination.
The Curtis bill, though, is likely not really about Native Americans—or their heritage at all. We now know that Energy Fuels Inc., a Lakewood-based uranium firm, lobbied the Department of the Interior in the spring of 2017, and other mining and business lobbyists reportedly pressed the administration. Although the original Bears Ears Monument preserved “existing users,” including mining, and would have created new jobs around outdoor and conservation industries, the Curtis bill will open enormous tracks of land to new extraction. Simply put, the Curtis bill is asking Americans to trade in thousands of irreplaceable archaeological sites and a vast natural preserve for the fleeting money to be made from oil, gas, coal, and uranium.
Given the turmoil over presidential designations of monuments in Utah, perhaps it is good for Congress to have their say. But if Congress is the will of the people, what is our will? One 2017 poll found that 52 percent of Utahns supported the reduction. However, more evidence suggests that Bears Ears has broad public support. Another 2017 poll reported that 47 percent of Utah voters think the original Bears Ears designation was a good thing (compared to 32 percent who thought it bad). That same poll found that 83 percent of Coloradans—with nearly identical numbers in six other Western states—think that existing national monuments should be protected. During a public comment period in 2017, of the tens of thousands of comments the government collected, an analysis shows that an overwhelming majority support keeping the full Bears Ears Monument intact.
For those who believe Bears Ears is a special place that should be safeguarded for all Americans, this is the moment to contact your representatives in Congress. Otherwise, the Curtis bill could be the final battle in the war over Bears Ears.
Dr. Chip Colwell is the founding editor-in-chief of SAPIENS. His new book is Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.