Photo: Bob Wick / BLM
Efforts to conserve Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument received substantial press coverage after Patagonia and other outdoor apparel companies forced the Outdoor Retailer Show to search for a new home over disagreement with state delegates about how to preserve the land. The story, however, goes deeper than the rift between socially conscious companies and Utah’s government.
Tribal communities have been fighting to protect Bears Ears and sacred lands for centuries, but this particular episode started 8 years ago and is riddled with a massive illegal artifact bust, gun-toting libertarians, jail time, suicide, mining interests, political double-speak and a valiant effort to preserve one of America’s most magnificent environmental and historical sites. It may sound like a modern day Indiana Jones movie, but this is real life.
A Rude Awakening
In 2009, nearly 100 FBI agents raided the homes of residents in Blanding, Utah – a small town on the outskirts of what’s now Bears Ears National Monument — to execute what then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called “the nation’s largest investigation of archaeological and cultural artifact thefts.”
As the Smithsonian archived, 40,000 Native American artifacts were confiscated in the bust – known as Operation Cerberus — and 24 individuals were accused of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In the end, two of the defendants committed suicide, several were cleared and the rest were required to hand over the goods to authorities, but avoided jail time. The artifacts were eventually sent to museums and storage facilities.
“That’s really what sparked the tribes to get organized and realize that people were still actively looting and grave robbing their sites,” Gavin Noyes, Executive Director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, which in Navajo means “People’s Sacred Lands,” told Planet Experts.
Since Operation Cerberus, Diné Bikéyah – a nonprofit that works to “preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of ancestral Native American lands” – and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition have focused on caring for the land and maintaining tribal authority over related decisions.
Two Options for Preservation
In 2011, a group of leaders from Navajo, Ute, Diné, Hopi, Zuni and 20 other tribes carefully studied the topography surrounding Bears Ears and marked 1.9 million acres they believed should be preserved under law.
The Coalition explored two options to protect the land: a legislative solution through Congress and a national monument designation via the Antiquities Act.
Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz proposed the Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI) and an accompanying piece of legislation — the Utah Public Lands Initiative Partner Act — which, according to Noyes, excluded potentially viable mining sites and massively reduced the suggested protected area to 1.1 million acres. In summer 2016, the proposed PLI was amended to 1.4 million acres.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which had worked with Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz in an attempt to find compromise, called the bill “the worst piece of wilderness legislation that’s been introduced in Congress since passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.”
The tribes were originally open to discussing the PLI but state representatives “never answered us,” Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council Delegate and Bears Ears Commission member, told Planet Experts.
The Coalition’s call was better received by the Obama Administration. On December 28th, 2016, the President used the Antiquities Act to designate 1.35 million acres in San Juan River County as the Bears Ears National Monument.
“It’s an extraordinary area — no doubt about it — and it’s very important that it gets protection,” Paul Edwards, Deputy Chief of Staff for Utah Governor Gary Herbert, told Planet Experts. “The question is: What’s the right protection and who has the best ideas about that?”
While local tribes and land conservationists around the world applauded the national monument designation, some community members from surrounding areas disapproved of the action and have different ideas about how the land should be used.
Rewind to May 2014. In Recapture Canyon just outside of Blanding – the same town in which Operation Cerberus took place a few years earlier –- an armed militia of more than 50 ATV riders, led by then-San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lymen, tore through BLM land to protest federal oversight. They rode feet from sacred tribal sites that prohibited motorized vehicles.
“It’s not illegal. It’s the people of San Juan County’s land. It’s your god-given right to go down and ride through that canyon and to hell with the media,” said a gun-totting ATVer.
Lyman was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 3 years probation for the ATV stunt.
Libertarian sentiments aren’t new to Utah and many residents feel that federal overreach brings unwanted restrictions to the state. In 1996, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to designate 1.9 million acres of the Grand Staircase-Escalante wilderness in south central Utah as a national monument.
“For 20 years people in Utah have been concerned about the abuse of the Antiquities Act and have been pushing hard to get the same exemptions that Wyoming and Alaska enjoy legislatively,” Edwards said.
The Governor supports the LPI that “would have allowed greater local voice and greater participation from the Native Americans,” he continued. “Herbert grew up with a Navajo foster brother. He has a very keen appreciation for the Navajo Nation and its culture and its people and he very much wants to see their full co-management that can only be done through legislation to create a national conservation area.”
There are commonalities between the two options. Both seek to preserve the natural beauty and historical significance of Bears Ears and give native tribes a say in decision making.
While a President can’t legally defer decision-making authority to a designated entity the same way a legislative solution could, the Obama Administration included distinct language in the proclamation that ensures tribal communities substantial influence in management decisions.
Specifically, the current statute creates a Bears Ears Commission comprised of an internally elected tribal leader from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray and Zuni Tribe. The Commission serves as a separate entity established to provide recommendations to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on how the land is used. The current plan also includes a local Committee consisting of “state and local governments, tribes, recreational users, local business owners and private landowners.”
A Congressional policy would likely incorporate a collaborative management system similar to the Committee, but leave out the Commission of Native American leaders.
“Usually when the Utah delegation describes collaborative management they are talking about a 15 or 20-person committee where the tribal voice is drowned out by state voices,” Noyes said.
Although the current law allows the BLM and USFS to issue “grazing permits or leases on lands” within the monument, it limits commercial activity.
San Juan County is one of the poorest in the country and has the highest unemployment rate in Utah. With a legislative solution, the land would have a wider array of possibilities and local communities could partake in “traditional uses” like cattle ranching and logging, Edwards said.
The land near the park is mined for its abundant uranium deposits and a Congressional policy could pose the risk of commercial interests pushing to further explore within the park; however, “its not to seek out vast new (fossil fuel) extraction opportunities because there just don’t seem to be any there,” Edwards said.
Although there hasn’t been extensive oil exploration in the past, months before the national monument designation, a Texas-based energy company – EOG Resources – received state approval to dig for oil in the region near Bluff Bench. As Brian Maffly of the Salt Lake Tribune covered in detail, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) leased the drillers more than 13,000 acres.
Both Edwards and Noyes said the disagreement was a political one and that there was no apparent corporate interest group pushing for either policy.
The Current Battle over Bears Ears
Since Donald Trump took office, there’s been an insurgence from the right to transfer federal lands to states and subsequently open possibilities for private ownership.
“The Utah delegation is still pushing their side – we really don’t know why,” said Filfred, whose hometown of Aneth is roughly 200 miles from Bears Ears.
“A lot of the major oil companies have gone through here (Aneth) and they left all their debris behind,” said the Tribal Commissioner. “It’s contaminated. Our soil is contaminated, our water is contaminated, our air is contaminated and nobody’s going to rehabilitate the land. They got their money and they’re gone. I don’t want to see that over at Bears Ears.”
Filfred said that overall, the tribes are happy with the current management system and want the government to leave the land alone. Amidst concerns over rescindment, tribal leaders invited Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to speak about the monument, but he hasn’t responded.
“We want to be heard,” the Commissioner said.
The tribal community is not alone. In response to governor Herbert’s requests to rescind and shrink the monuments, the bi-annual Outdoor Retailer Show, which brings an estimated $50 million in revenue to the state every year, decided to end its 18-year relationship with Utah.
“If the Governor of Utah were to change his position to be more in line with the outdoor industry’s values, then perhaps we would be able to consider Utah as a location in the future,” Kate Lowery, the Outdoor Retailer Show’s Director of Communications and PR, wrote Planet Experts in an email.
Patagonia, which initiated the breakup, claimed that the “hostile environment” and “blatant disregard for Bears Ears National Monument and other public lands” warranted outdoor companies moving their biggest trade show to a state that “promotes public lands conservation.” The company also developed a virtual reality experience to spread the word and is dedicated to furthering monument protection. It’s also working on projects to raise awareness around similar cases in Maine and Alaska, Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s Director of Global Communications and Public Relations, told Planet Experts.
“The outdoor industry and the broader conservation community are gaining in strength and coordinating better all the time,” Kenna said. “Politicians can no longer ignore the economic value of recreation and we will continue to focus on those tangible benefits to our communities along with the moral imperative of protecting wild places for future generations.”
From a legal perspective, overturning the monument designation would ignite a difficult litigation process and has never been done in the history of the Antiquities Act. However, shrinking the monument and adjusting the proclamation could be done with less of a fight, which both the outdoor industry and tribal communities oppose.
How You Can Protect Bears Ears and Public Lands
If you want to help, tell Ryan Zinke what you think, share the story with your social media networks and support conservation organizations like Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, Utah Diné Bikéyah, Conservation Lands Foundation and Conservation Alliance.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children.”