Source: Salt Lake Tribune
When President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument as one of his final acts in office, those opposing the designation took to calling it the “midnight monument” and condemned what they viewed as a sudden, unilateral declaration. They could not have been more wrong. In fact, the “abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes” Obama noted in his declaration had been in the news more than 80 years ago when then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes first proposed protecting the area as a national monument.
Now, with confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke intending to visit Utah to discuss Bears Ears, it seems like a wonderful opportunity to look at the most recent process leading to the monument designation. While Zinke may seek insight from local leaders regarding the monument, we hope he will consider the process and collective effort preceding the designation as well.
One could argue the process began in 2013 when Rep. Rob Bishop proposed his Public Lands Initiative (PLI). The PLI seemed like a good idea. Stakeholders viewed it as an opportunity to find sincere compromise and balanced land uses. Daggett County’s 2014 agreement supported both wilderness land and resource development — a happy-medium solution appealing to various stakeholders.
Unfortunately, this agreement was the exception. As PLI discussions continued, it became clear compromising was going to be no easy task, and some stakeholders’ voices were heard over others’.
In the midst of these discussions, the Utah Dine Bikeyah felt their voices were among those no longer being heard. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a coalition uniting five different tribes — formed as a result. The coalition felt their only option for protecting the landscape and advocating for these sacred spaces was to go to the president himself. In 2015, they announced their request for Obama to create a Bears Ears National Monument.
Soon thereafter, Bishop finally unveiled a PLI “discussion draft,” and he released a more finalized version in July 2016. Bishop wields a great amount of power as the chairman of the House of Natural Resources Committee, but he was unable to pass the bill through Congress. Without progress from Bishop, President Obama was compelled to act.
Ultimately, Bears Ears was designated a national monument. Those legislators opposed to its monument status based on its size must have a short memory: the monument boundaries closely resemble those suggested in Bishop’s PLI, although the PLI called for a National Conservation Area. The PLI discussion continued for three years; had the PLI successfully found compromise, it would have passed through Congress. Yet, it failed, and a monument designation was deemed the most responsible form of protection for this area.
The real sticking point seems to be that protection came from the president rather than Congress. It is irrational to argue about boundaries when they align closely to Bishop’s NCA suggestion. It is also unfair for Utah legislators to say they are speaking for Native Americans when the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition fought hard to be heard.
Efforts to rescind the Bear Ears National Monument reflect our leaders’ short memories. History does not support arguments about process and boundaries. A new administration has no excuse to act irrationally. Doing so undermines those who fought for a monument designation and the many Utahns — within and beyond San Juan County — who support it.
To Secretary Zinke: President Obama’s Bears Ears monument designation was no arbitrary decision, as many Utah leaders suggest. It was the climax of years, if not decades, of conversation, coordination, and communication. Please consider the history of this designation and remember our delegation does not accurately represent all Utahns.
Madison Hayes is content manager at Alliance for a Better Utah.
Read The Salt Lake Tribune op-ed here.