This Ancient Place Just Secured Membership in America’s Culture Club

Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah will protect some of America’s most striking landscape—and its earliest history.

Credit: Tim Peterson

“We don’t manage land. The land manages us.” This American Indian byword perhaps takes on no greater significance than in the vast, awe-inspiring red-rock country of southeastern Utah. Otherworldly terrain filled with plateaus, mesas, canyons, arches, domes, and rivers extends for hundreds of uninterrupted miles.

This striking landscape has provided for native peoples for millennia, and while much has changed in recent centuries, the Hopi tribe, Navajo nation, Ute Mountain tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian tribe recently came together to make sure a sizable chunk of their ancestral home remains intact. The newly designated Bears Ears National Monumentcreated by President Obama in his final weeks in office—will be such a place. Within its 1.35 million acres lie more than 100,000 American Indian archaeological sites, many of which have been imperiled by looting, vandalism, and recreational vehicle use. Drilling, mining, and other industrial development also threatened to erase much of this cultural history and current way of life in the area, which is named for twin buttes that poke up in a formation reminiscent of, well, a bear's ears.

“Their connection to this place is not just a memory,” says Sharon Buccino, director of NRDC’s Land and Wildlife program. “Bears Ears is still home to sacred resources that continue to be vital to tribal communities across the region as a place of subsistence, spirituality, healing, and contemplation.”

That’s why the members of Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition led the charge for a national monument designation. The five tribes mentioned above issued formal resolutions calling for the creation of Bears Ears National Monument, and worked closely and tirelessly with one another to make the proposal a reality. Meanwhile, an additional 21 American Indian tribes with ties to the region expressed their support, and the National Congress of American Indians, representing hundreds of tribes across the country, passed its own resolution in favor of the designation.

With strong backing from NRDC and other groups, the coalition petitioned President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to create the national monument. Motivated by the looting of archaeological sites in the Southwest during the late 1800s, the 1906 act gives presidents the authority to set aside federal lands for protection. During his tenure, Obama has used the Antiquities Act 24 times, protecting more than 265 million acres of land and water as well as important cultural sites like the Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C., and the Pullman Historic District in Chicago. Along with creating the Bears Ears Monument, Obama also gave long-overdue protection to Gold Butte, a region of rugged mountains, yucca forest, and desert located northeast of Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, not everyone supported the creation of the monument. Some Utah politicians, with their longstanding interest in mining and oil and gas drilling, vigorously opposed it. That the protections would take leasing off the table for extractive industries wasn’t the only reason for their dissent. Many of the monument’s naysayers object to the very concept of public lands, and Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was openly committed to selling them off. Utah lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing Bears Ears in May 2016.

Credit: Tim Peterson

In spite of all this, President Obama has acted on behalf of conserving the country's rich cultural heritage, and the history of a land shared by all Americans.

It's hard to describe the sheer vastness and majesty this protects, NRDC president Rhea Suh said. These lands will now be safe from mining, drilling, and other threats.

One of the most exciting aspects of the new monument is the opportunity to involve the tribes in its management. Who better to task with preserving the land and culture of this place than those who have held it in their hearts for so long? “It was the Inter-Tribal Coalition's leadership and vision that made this possible, said Suh. Native peoples have called this sacred place home for thousands of years. With [this] inspired action, they'll have a voice in keeping it safe for thousands more.”

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