Frustrated tribal leaders wonder if Bears Ears is a national monument in name only


Nine months after President Barack Obama enshrined the 1.3 million acres encircling Utah’s Bears Ears Buttes as a protected landscape, federal agencies have done little to manage the lands as outlined in the monument proclamation. 

The Bureau of Land Management and Manti-La Sal National Forest have moved to protect high-visibility archaeological sites, but planning efforts remain stuck in limbo while uncertainty surrounding the monument’s future persists.

The agencies have ordered road signs marking the monument entrances, but they have yet to be installed.

Under pressure from local and state officials, the BLM has suspended all management planning, drawing the ire of tribal governments that sought the monument designation under the Antiquities Act.

“The monument as-is must be implemented pursuant to President Obama’s proclamation, which is the current law of those lands,” said Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch. “The need for these protections is now elevated as visitorship to the monument multiplied upon its designation.”

This year, more people are exploring San Juan County’s Cedar Mesa and its side canyons that were a hotbed of Anasazi culture more than 700 years ago. These lands, which form the heart of the new monument, have very little by way of developed facilities or interpretive signs to help people visit the fragile sites.

A Bears Ears monument “is not just an idea for visitors. No monument has ever had more press than Bears Ears. The visitors are coming, but a strategy for dealing with that isn’t there,” said Bluff activist Josh Ewing, who runs Friends of Cedar Mesa.

Obama’s proclamation promised a special advisory role for the tribes, but so far the feds have not heeded much advice from the Bears Ears Commission. The tribes empaneled this five-member group back in March and it has met regularly ever since.

Branch argued that the commission’s work toward a collaborative management plan “must move forward expeditiously in order to ensure those lands and the historical, cultural, and scientific resources bound by them are adequately and appropriately protected.”

On Aug. 24, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted a confidential report to the White House urging reductions to Bears Ears, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and two other western monuments. He also suggested amendments to their proclamations to protect ”hunting and fishing rights,” road and service upgrades and “traditional use.”

President Donald Trump has yet to act on those recommendations, which became public Sunday when the memo was leaked to The Washington Post.

Should the president contract the Bears Ears’ boundaries, the fate of the monument would remain unresolved because the tribes and other groups vow to file lawsuits. They believe presidents may create monuments using the Antiquities Act, but they don’t believe presidents can reduce the monuments created by their predecessors. The lawsuits could create years-long delays before the BLM begins treating Bears Ears as a full-fledged national monument.

New polling commission by UtahPolicy shows a split opinion on Utah’s two big monuments, both mired in controversy since birth. The poll released Tuesday asked Utah voters whether either monument should be shrunk. The survey of 608 voters, contacted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, show 49 percent favor reducing Bears Ears and 44 percent favor reducing Grand Staircase. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Designated on the same day as Bears Ears, Nevada’s 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument has also been proposed for unspecified reductions. While signs have gone up at Gold Butte, monument planning remains on hold there as well, according to BLM spokesman John Asselin.

“We are preparing for it, but it’s at [the Department of Interior] level. We are waiting for them to move forward,” he said, stressing that Gold Butte is still being managed as a monument.

Under Obama’s Bears Ears proclamation, that monument’s minerals and other extractable resources were withdrawn from future sale. Existing uranium, potash and oil and gas leases were not affected and could still be developed, but no new leases would be offered unless the boundaries are redrawn.

The proclamation also instructed the agencies to create an advisory committee representing numerous interest groups; engage with the tribes on management issues; develop a transportation plan; and pursue a land exchange for state trust lands inside the monument.

These obligations remain unfulfilled.

The failure to conduct travel planning is especially troubling, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group.

“We know there is a correlation with motorized routes and looting and vandalism. The transportation plan was intended to be a significant step to curtail that sort of damage,” said Steve Bloch, SUWA’s legal director. “As long as BLM is not willing to start that process and revise the travel plan, it is hard to understand how they could be taking steps to protect the historic and cultural resources in the monument.”

San Juan County officials reject claims that looting is even a problem, arguing tourists pose a bigger threat to the region’s fragile cultural sites embedded in it canyons and mesas.

Meanwhile, these officials object to even informal interactions between federal land managers and the inter-tribal advisory commission.

Bear Ears Commission members’ June 28 hike with BLM staff provoked an angry response from the San Juan County Commission, which has lobbied hard for the monument’s rescision on the grounds that it disenfranchises local citizens and serves no legitimate purpose.

“We have been told numerous times by federal officials that all meetings or planning for the [monument] have been put on hold,” wrote chairman Bruce Adams in a July 5 letter to Zinke, which alleges the hike is evidence of illicit “planning.”

That letter prompted an Aug. 31 response from the Bears Ears Commission, asking Zinke to order the BLM to proceed with meetings and planning.

“The existing legal mandate is that federal officials ‘effectively partner’ and ‘meaningfully engage’ with the tribal commission to ‘ensure’ that Native American traditional knowledge is honored and used in collaborative management in order to reach the highest potential of this monument. These directives remain fully in place and are not diminished by the views of Utah state officials to or the secretarial review of national monuments,” wrote commission co-chairman Terry Knight of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and Carleton Bowekaty of the Pueblo of Zuni.

A BLM spokesman affirmed that all monument planning is on hold. Jayson Barangan of the Utah state office said the June 28 hike did take place, but it was to inspect sensitive archaeological sites and discussion was confined to how to accommodate increased visitation in ways that won’t harm the sites. He referred further inquiries to the Interior Department, which did not reply to an email request for comment.