The federal government has entered into a historic agreement with five Native American tribes, ensuring they’ll have a substantial say in the management of Bears Ears National Monument, a landscape in southeast Utah rich in scenic beauty, geological wonders, scientific treasures and Indigenous spirituality.
The monument encompasses 1.36-million-acres of public land sacred to the tribes, whose leaders successfully petitioned former President Barack Obama to designate the mesas and canyons that had been getting looted and vandalized for generations as protected federal land.
But for nearly six years, Obama’s pledge to give the tribes — Zuni Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute — formal co-management authority went unfulfilled.
That changed on Saturday when top federal land managers sat down with tribal representatives at White Mesa to sign the cooperative agreement for the lands encircling the monument’s namesake Bears Ears Buttes.
“Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future,” said Carleton Bowekaty, lieutenant governor of the Zuni Pueblo, in a statement released by the Bureau of Land Management.
“What can be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands their ancestors were removed from?,” the tribal leader said.
The agreement’s purpose is to ensure tribal knowledge and expertise have a meaningful influence on how the monument is run by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, according to Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which provides a unified voice for the five tribes with ancestral ties to this landscape.
“The traditional and cultural knowledge of tribes and their historical role of stewards to the land is one that now we can really see in pen to paper. It’s a culmination of many years of efforts,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “These are really integral and valuable components relative to land management. These are items that really add a qualitative approach to the context in which tribes think about lands.”
The deal comes at a time when the federal government, under the direction of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, has taken steps toward addressing the decades of wrongs suffered by the nation’s 574 tribes at the hands of federal authority, including the removal of Indigenous children from their families, communities and homelands.
Obama was honoring tribal concerns when he initially designated Bears Ears in 2016 using his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to set aside federal lands to protect objects of historical, natural and scientific interest.
His gesture was largely — but temporarily — undone a year later when then-President Donald Trump, acting at the request of Utah’s Republican leadership, slashed the monument by 85%, removing 1.1 million acres from protection. Biden reversed that action last October. Now Utah is preparing to file a lawsuit aimed at invalidating Biden’s restoration of the monument.
The monument, restored by President Joe Biden last October, not only protects a “living landscape,” but also preserves tribes’ culture by providing a place where elders can convey stories, rituals, traditions and practices to younger generations, to help them understand where they came from and who they are, according to the agreement.
“Tribal Nations, and particularly Tribal Elders, have important knowledge, local expertise, and an understanding of the spiritual significance of the Bears Ears region beyond the physical environment and is critical to inform the BLM and USFS planning processes and management of monument objects,” the agreement states. “As described in Proclamation 10285, the Bears Ears is both a cultural living space for Tribal members — holding the history of their traditions and cultural practices — and a location that is integral to their ceremonial practices and cultural traditions, as well as other activities and rituals.”
Saturday’s action also re-established the Bears Ears Commission, the panel with representatives from each tribe charged with giving the BLM and Forest Service guidance on land use within the monument. This panel originally formed following Obama’s 2016 proclamation, but remained largely inactive after the Trump administration shrunk the monument and produced a management plan that the tribes declined to recognize.
The type of true co-management formalized in the agreement will serve as a model for supporting nation-to-nation relationships in the future, according to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning.
“We are so pleased to celebrate this unique partnership between Tribal Nations and federal agencies to manage and protect the remarkable and sacred Bears Ears landscape,” Stone-Manning said. “This is an important step as we move forward together to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional perspectives remain at the forefront of our joint decision-making for the Bears Ears National Monument.”
Under the agreement, the land agencies and tribes are to cooperate on planning, program development, resource protection and access. In the other words, the federal agencies must not only listen to the tribes, but also act on their wishes within the confines of Biden’s monument proclamation and applicable laws.
The responsible federal land agencies had produced road signs for the monument’s main access points, but they remained out of view in storage for years while uncertainty clouded the monument’s future.
Last week, they started coming out.
One was installed along State Road 261 near Mexican Hat, where it was unveiled in a ceremony Saturday attended by the five commission members, Stone-Manning and Homer Wilkes, undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resource and Environment.
The sign features the monument’s namesake buttes, which occupy the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and the famed House on Fire ruin on BLM land. Included under the sign are the logos of the five tribes.
Agencies will meet annually with the commission to develop a work plan for the coming year that will set priorities based on available funding, including research opportunities, establishing a visitor center, interpretive signage and recreation amenities.
The inter-tribal coalition members now serve as commissioners. For the past few years, the coalition quietly worked on a proposed management plan that will soon be submitted to the federal agencies, which also initiated a process to produce a management plan to replace the one the Trump administration finalized in 2020 without tribal involvement.
“The commission will evolve and it will be a stand-alone body that will have its own kind of capacity and resources,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “As we go forward, the commission is only going to grow in stature as well as the ability to do much of the responsibilities for the long-term maintenance and management of the national monument.”