Utah Tribes Seek Monument Designation For Bears Ears, But Congress May Not Like That

Obama can declare a national monument without congressional approval.
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Tribal Council Member at Ute Mountain Ute tribe, speaks at the National Press Club
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Tribal Council Member at Ute Mountain Ute tribe, speaks at the National Press Club

WASHINGTON -- A group of Native American tribes wants 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah to become the 20th national monument that President Barack Obama designates.

Leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which includes five Native American tribes and pueblos, announced a proposal Thursday at the National Press Club that would declare the Bears Ears region, which the coalition says has special cultural, spiritual and historical significance to Native Americans, a protected national site.

The coalition, which includes members of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Ute Tribe of the Uinta and Ouray nations, argued that Bears Ears is where tribal leaders have always gone to collect medicinal herbs and conduct traditional healing and spiritual rituals. But over time, the region has been plagued by looting, threats of mineral extraction, grave-robbing and disregard for the traditions and history of the land because it lacks federal protections.

"Today is a celebratory day," Eric Descheenie, the coalition's co-chair and special adviser to the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation, told the crowd. Descheenie said the coalition is excited to submit its proposal, which has been in the works since July, because members believe the designation of a national monument would create hope for people who "relate to land" so deeply and are in need of "healing."

Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the president can declare a site to be a national monument without congressional approval. The coalition said this proposal marks the first time native tribes have directly petitioned a president for the designation.

The coalition has tried to seek protections for the site through the Utah Public Lands Initiative, an effort led by House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to develop consistent regulations for the treatment of eastern Utah's public lands, including the Bears Ears area. But Bears Ears Coalition members said Thursday that they have felt excluded from the initiative, and a national monument designation from Obama would preserve the region's historic and cultural significance.

Bishop's office said Friday that a public lands bill is still being drafted and negotiated, so groups still have the opportunity to weigh in. Bishop is a vocal opponent of the Antiquities Act, which he has said presidents can abuse to limit activity on public land.

Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), along with Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), issued a joint statement Thursday welcoming any input the Bears Ears Coalition would like to offer to the Public Lands Initiative. The lawmakers noted the proposal has sparked conflict among native tribes, arguing that "many Native Americans who live in Utah oppose the Coalition's proposal. Our offices have now received over 65 detailed proposals from various stakeholder groups regarding land management in eastern Utah.

"We remain committed to reviewing each proposal and producing a final PLI bill that is balanced and broadly supported," the lawmakers wrote.

Willie Grayeyes, a member of the Bears Ears coalition and the chairman of the Utah Diné Bikéyah, said Thursday that approximately 75 percent of the 566 federally recognized tribes support the proposal. and cited a resolution backing the proposal passed by the National Congress of American Indians.

But a segment of Utah's Navajo community argues that the creation of a national monument would infringe upon the everyday life of the native people in the region.

The proposal is "not going to help our people. I know they want to preserve, but we are here," Marie Holiday, a Navajo member who served on the county's public lands advisory council, told the Salt Lake Tribune in August. "We still get our wood from there. ...If there's a national monument, we are not going to have access to it."

Bishop's office provided statements about the proposal from a sampling of the more than 300 Utah Navajos who have signed a letter opposing the Bears Ears National Monument Proposal. Many said they would prefer the site be named a National Conservation Area, which requires congressional designation rather than an order from the president.

"We don't get involved in Ute, Zuni, or Hopi issues, so why do they involve themselves in ours? We still want to hunt, gather herbs, and have access to this land," Harrison Johnson, a Utah Navajo and Aneth Chapter representative, said in a statement provided by Bishop's office.

Grayeyes dismissed these claims in a comment to the Salt Lake Tribune in August, arguing that Native Americans would retain access to the site, no matter what the designation, because of religious freedom protections.

Coalition members in favor of designating Bears Ears as a national monument said the competing claims of opponents are a result of misinformation. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, an Ute Mountain Ute tribe council member, said Thursday that the government had not accurately presented the consequences of a national monument designation to the native people in the area.

The coalition's proposal lays out a plan for protection for the site, and attempts to address the complicated logistics of having a federally declared monument on land that has longstanding ties to the native community. It calls for an eight-member commission to oversee Bears Ears, with five members drawn from the tribes and three members representing the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. That commission would hire a monument manager and staff.

Coalition members said the creation of a national monument is an imperative for the protection of their identity. "It's not only a request," said Lopez-Whiteskunk, "but it's our responsibility. This is who we are. This is something that our grandparents had probably foreseen for us many, many years ago."

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