Preservation Magazine, Spring 2017

Bears Ears National Monument Under Immediate Threat

The Bears Ears National Monument

photo by: Donald J. Rommes

The Bears Ears National Monument was designated in December 2016, but Utah's state legislature has urged President Trump to overturn his predecessor's action.

When President Obama exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016, Native American leaders, the National Trust, and a host of other groups rejoiced. The 1.35 million-acre monument in southeastern Utah encompasses sites that are profoundly sacred to the region’s Native American peoples, as well as natural wonders such as the rippling pink walls of White Canyon, the red-rock formations of the Valley of the Gods, and the imposing twin buttes that serve as the area’s namesake.

The land contains important food, firewood, and medicinal resources for the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah & Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni peoples, whose leaders formed an Inter-Tribal Coalition to advocate for federally protected status for the site. “The continuity of indigenous traditional medicine is in peril, as long as lands like the Bears Ears are not protected,” they wrote in an overview of the national monument proposal they sent to President Obama in October of 2015.

The National Trust has advocated to protect cultural resources in southeastern Utah from looting, vandalism, and oil and gas development since 2007, and it added Bears Ears to its National Treasures program in 2014, partnering with the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, the Conservation Lands Foundation, and others.

In 2016, the site landed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America list, garnering national attention. National Trust president Stephanie K. Meeks submitted testimony to the United States House Committee on Natural Resources, supporting national monument status for Bears Ears. And in November of 2016, the Trust’s letter to President Obama urging him to proceed with the federal designation was signed by 17 other preservation, conservation, and archaeology organizations.

Though these efforts were successful, the fight to save Bears Ears is far from over. Utah’s Congressional delegation strongly opposes the national monument designation, asserting that it will limit existing uses and hurt local communities. The state legislature passed a resolution on February 3, 2017, signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, asking President Trump to overturn President Obama’s action—even though it’s not clear that there is a legal way to do so.

The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906 under President Theodore Roosevelt, grants the president the authority to designate national monuments without going through Congress. It has never been used to revoke monument status before, and many legal scholars question whether this kind of action is possible. Sixteen presidents—eight Republicans and eight Democrats—have invoked the Antiquities Act to create or enlarge national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, White Sands, and Fort Monroe.

The bipartisan Conservation in the West poll conducted in December 2016 and January 2017 showed that Utahns favor keeping Bears Ears National Monument by a 15-point margin. As of press time, though, the site’s future was uncertain.

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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