Commentary: The unique landscape of Bears Ears must be protected

Members of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance support the restoration of the national monument.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument are shown on Dec. 28, 2016, in southeastern Utah. With Joe Biden's capture of the White House comes the likelihood that Utah's two big national monuments will be restored to their original boundaries, reopening yet another front in the West's public lands wars.

As the board of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance (MESA), we support and encourage the restoration of the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. We agree with the Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board that Utah’s elected leaders should not waste valuable time and resources opposing the restoration of the monument.

Bears Ears is a unique cultural and ecological landscape, rich with archaeology and the heritage of Native Tribes of the region, who exhausted legislative routes before asking the Obama administration to designate it as a national monument. A year later, in 2017, the Trump administration removed 85% of the area from monument status, leaving countless archaeological sites and entire cultural landscapes outside the monument. We appreciate the Biden administration’s intentions to respect and preserve these public lands.

The Proclamation for Bears Ears National Monument beautifully describes this amazing place:

“Rising from the center of the southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or “Bears Ears.” For hundreds of generations, native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops, which constitute one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.”

We recognize the early Latter-day Saint settlers and their descendants who are connected with this unique landscape, some of whom oppose monument designation. While we share a common faith, we also acknowledge that human settlements in this region date back thousands of years, and the role that members of our church played in displacing Native people from these lands and continue to play in suppressing their voices brings us sorrow. In the interest of honoring the tribes’ claims to the land, it is critical that they be prominent in managing this landscape, as specified in the original designation.

Bears Ears provides an opportunity for all people to experience its beauty, serenity, cultural sites and ecological wonders, and a reasonable approach to utilization of the land for sustenance. Given the impacts of climate change and the potential damage from outside development to these rich cultural and environmental treasures, it is not a place for mining or other industrial or commercial development. Furthermore, all the people of Utah will be better served by protecting these areas for stewardship-oriented education, recreation and tourism, as well as the long-term ecological benefits, rather than for short-term extractive profits that degrade the environment and enrich only a few.

We remain committed to the ethical principles stated in our letter to the Utah congressional delegation in 2018: “We support how and why Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were established — to protect native ecosystems, unique vistas, archeological treasures and Indigenous Peoples’ cultural and ancestral sites that are abundant in both monuments. We share with our Native brothers and sisters a love of and reverence for our earthly home and all of God’s creations.”

We urge local and national leaders to recognize the sanctity and serenity of Bears Ears National Monument and the necessity to preserve it for current and future generations.

Marc Coles-Ritchie

Marc Coles-Ritchie, chair of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance board, is a vegetation ecologist living in Salt Lake City.

Rachael Lauritzen

Rachael Lauritzen, vice chair of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance board, is a handwork teacher living in South Salt Lake City.

Soren Simonsen

Soren Simonsen, a board member of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance board, is an architect, entrepreneur, community and ecological planner.