Tribes and the feds will try to co-manage a national monument for the first time. Here’s what that could look like.

The final plan will affect recreation, grazing and off-highway vehicle use within Bears Ears National Monument.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The two buttes that make up the namesake for Bears Ears National Monument reveal the vast landscape. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service released their draft management plan for the monument today.

After surviving three presidents, years of administrative back-and-forth in Washington and persistent local pushback, the federal government on Friday released potential plans for managing Bears Ears National Monument.

The plan and the monument are the first of their kind. The land will be managed not only by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service but also with the input of five sovereign tribal nations.

“In the face of modern challenges, such as the management of Bears Ears National Monument, our commitment to collaboration remains unwavering,” said Curtis Yanito, Navajo Nation Council member and Bears Ears commissioner, in a statement. “The draft resource management plan represents the culmination of our shared knowledge and insights, offered willingly to federal agencies for the betterment of the Monument. Our ancestors have faithfully safeguarded this land for centuries, and as collaborative stewards, we pledge to uphold this sacred duty into the boundless future.”

A 90-day public comment period for the draft plan and environmental impact statement begins Friday. The BLM will review public comments and incorporate them into a final resource management plan and environmental impact statement.

“The publication of the Draft Resource Management Plan and associated Environmental Impact Statement begins the next step in the Bears Ears National Monument planning process,” said BLM Utah State Director Greg Sheehan in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the extensive knowledge provided by the Commission and the State, and welcome substantive public input as the vital next step in considering the alternatives in the draft.”

The BLM and Forest Service plan to hold seven open-house public meetings for the public to meet with resource specialists. Two meetings will be virtual. More information about the public meetings can be found at this link.

What are the proposed plans for Bears Ears?

The 678-page draft includes five alternative plans, which include tribal input for shared stewardship of the monument.

The BLM and Forest Service have identified Alternative E as their preferred option, which they say “maximizes the consideration and use of Tribal perspectives on managing the landscape” of the monument, emphasizing tribal knowledge and the protection of natural resources.

Under Alternative E, recreational shooting in the monument would be prohibited. Livestock grazing would be available except for on nearly 170,000 acres.

The federal agencies would recognize existing Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, which, according to the BLM, are “areas within public land where special management attention is required. These existing areas in Bears Ears National Monument are the San Juan River, Lavender Mesa, Shay Canyon, Indian Creek and Valley of the Gods. Alternative E would nominate John’s Canyon and the Aquifer Protection Areas for this designation.

Alternative E would limit off-highway vehicle use on nearly 800,000 acres and prohibit use on almost 570,000 acres.

“Recognition of these places is preserved in our songs and ceremonies, and these places continue to be visited for ceremonial harvesting and collecting,” said Craig Andrews, Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe and Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Commission, in a statement. “Bears Ears is integral to our ceremonies, traditions, and our identity as Hopi people. Supporting the Preferred Alternative ensures that we can continue to pass down our cultures and ways of knowing.”

Alternative A represents the “no-action” alternative, under which the monument would be managed under existing agreements. That allows for recreational shooting, except for in campgrounds, recreation sites, rock art sites and other cultural sites. Alternative A would designate 40,000 acres as unavailable for grazing.

All existing Areas of Critical Environmental Concern would be protected. Off-highway vehicle use would be limited on over 928,000 acres in the monument under Alternative A and closed on over 436,000 acres.

Alternatives B through D have varying restrictions on recreational shooting, grazing, protected areas and off-highway vehicle use.

Common to all alternatives, if a grazing permit holder voluntarily relinquishes their permit, the land under that permit would be retired from grazing. The monument is off-limits to new mining activities.

“Our tribal lands and resources extend far beyond our current reservation boundaries. Standing in Bears Ears we are surrounded by our sacred places, resources, and waters.” Christopher Tabbee, Vice Chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee and Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Commission, said in a statement. “We have always lived and traveled through these lands and used our expertise to sustain these resources. The Management Plan is a model for federal agencies to incorporate tribal knowledge and expertise into land management plans and practices. Tribal knowledge and involvement in managing these lands is needed now more than ever.”

A history of opposition

In 2015, leaders from the Hopi Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation and Pueblo of Zuni approached the federal government with a proposal for a national monument in southeastern Utah. But the tribes wanted more than a designation; they wanted a comanagement role.

President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument the next year using the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the president to designate national monuments. In 2016, Bears Ears spanned 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah, featuring deep canyons, high mesas, green meadows and countless cultural resources for nearby tribes.

Obama’s designation also created the Bears Ears Commission, consisting of one representative from each of the five tribes, that would inform the monument’s management.

Less than a year later, President Donald Trump slashed the monument’s acreage by 85%, citing federal overreach and local pushback. Trump also modified the Bears Ears Commission. The tribal representatives could only inform management on one unit of the monument, and the commission had to include a San Juan County commissioner.

Environmental groups and the five tribes filed suit over the monument reduction. But in 2021, President Joe Biden restored Bears Ears National Monument to its original size. His proclamation mandated that the BLM and Forest Service jointly prepare a new management plan for the monument.

The plan released Friday is a draft of that new management plan.

The state director for the BLM in Utah, Greg Sheehan, can then approve the final resource management plan and environmental impact statement.

This draft resource management comes as the State of Utah seeks to reduce both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by over 2 million acres. Such a reduction would return the boundaries of both monuments to what they were under the Trump administration.

The state filed its lawsuit against the monuments in August of 2022, and since then, a federal judge has dismissed it. Utah promptly filed a notice of appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in August.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has made it clear that he hopes this lawsuit will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.