In October of 2015, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, representing the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute nations, proposed a 1.9 million acre Bears Ears National Monument. A much smaller version of Bears Ears was proposed under the Utah Public Lands Initiative (UPLI), legislation ultimately torpedoed by opposition to anti-conservation provisions. The tribes pulled out of UPLI negotiations in frustration, instead seeking to advance a National Monument proposal of their own. And indeed, who would be more qualified to set the appropriate scope and extent of a landscape dedicated in large part to preserving cultural treasures and antiquities?
Ultimately, President Obama’s team lopped off more than half a million acres from the tribes’ proposal in the final designation, including Wilson Mesa, lands between White Canyon and Red Canyon, and the eastern slopes of the Abajo Mountains. These changes were made to appease local concerns, following public meetings senior Obama administration officials held with area residents. In the end, the concessions were fruitless, and the political backlash was immediate.
The compromise didn’t buy any goodwill among the staunch anti-federal politicians in Utah. Many locals view nature as a resource to be dominated and exploited for commercial gain, not protected as a national treasure, and have an insular resentment of outsiders who come here for recreation. The compromise intended to build consensus instead stirred up opposition, winning no more allies than if the original tribal proposal had been adopted in the first place. Bears Ears turned out to be a repeat of the Clinton-era designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, after which local economies swelled with the influx of tourism, yet anti-environmental resentment remained prevalent.
In his first year in office, President Trump moved swiftly to gut Utah’s newest Monuments, slashing Grand Staircase-Escalante in half, and eliminating 80% of Bears Ears National Monument. As a result, the spectacular canyons of Cedar Mesa – with their ancient cliff dwellings – were left almost entirely unprotected, as were the magnificent landscapes of Valley of the Gods. In the end, the Obama administration’s concessions were nullified.
In the case of Grand Staircase, locals were banking on a massive coal strip mine that had been proposed prior to GSENM establishment, which would have ruined much of the National Monument that had been designated. The Canadian mining corporation involved was promising economic boom times. The National Monument blocked the mine. Eventually a coal mine did get authorized just outside Monument boundaries, and now threatens the survival of the southernmost known population of greater sage grouse in the United States. Visitors can now stop in on the boomtown of Alton, to see the prosperity that this strip mine brought to the local community. If you can find it.
Coal is a dying industry, with mining corporations cashing out with fat bonuses for top executives, then declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying for health benefits promised to their mine workers. Renewable alternatives are now cheaper than burning the lithified ancient rainforests in a bid to return the planet to an era when tropical jungles stretched all the way to the Arctic. Greta Thunberg has spoken, succeeding where seven decades of climate scientists failed: Getting world leaders to pay attention to the glaringly obvious climate problem that has been staring all of us in the face. A coal mine in Grand Staircase would have been a short-lived economic contributor, indeed.
But if coal is over, mining for uranium (with its radioactive waste that remains toxic for a 25,000-year half-life) near Bears Ears breathes a feeble life into locals’ dreams of industrial prosperity. Significant parts of the tribal proposal, including Red Canyon lands characterized by one paleontologist as “the most important paleontology site in southeastern Utah,” were cut from the tribal proposal to make way for uranium mining. Three years later, the uranium industry is struggling, forcing layoffs of uranium mill workers in the Bears Ears region. The economic bonanza forecast by mining boosters has turned into a mirage.
Meanwhile, tourism continues to be the powerhouse of the southern Utah economy. Southern Utah is home to four of the “Mighty Five” national park destinations marketed by the state tourism bureau – Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands (the fifth is Arches, in east-central Utah). The tourists are flocking in to see pristine natural wonders, not strip mines, settling ponds, livestock, or gas wells. The real money is in protecting the land.
These are deeply divisive times, and southern Utah, heartland of land-seizure politics and Bundyite insurrectionists, is perhaps America’s most polarized region. In this land, no good conservation deed goes unpunished – dating back to Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of Grand Canyon National Monument (later National Park), which a local newspaper decried as “a fiendish and diabolical scheme.” Overtures to local industry go unrewarded here.
Bears Ears is at once the ancestral territory of Indigenous peoples and land managed by federal agencies in trust for all of the American people, not just locals who live in the gateway communities. The tribes are the ultimate authorities on antiquities here – it is their history and culture represented by the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs of Bears Ears. After performing their promised review, the Biden administration should look to the leadership of the Diné, Hopi Senom, A:shiwi, and Nuchu peoples, and designate a new Bears Ears National Monument that protects the full measure of lands and features in this spectacular landscape. The Biden team should take courage from the example of Theodore Roosevelt, leaning into the teeth of local opposition and proclaiming a bold Monument at Grand Canyon. Future generations of Americans – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – will then look back on this moment of vision and leadership on Bears Ears, and thank them for it.
Erik Molvar is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, one of multiple conservation groups that has been challenging the Trump-era reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in court. He also is author of the book Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.