Bears Ears: what’s the rumble about?

Bears Ears is the first tribally requested national monument and has been home to Hopi, Diné, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni peoples since time immemorial, it was designated as a national monument in 2016 to protect countless archaeological, cultural, and natural resources, including the wealth of traditional knowledge that Native people hold for this region.

The Bears Ears
The Bears Ears

By Mac England, The Meteor

On Thursday (Feb 6) Tribal and conservation groups condemned the Trump administration’s final management plans for Utah lands previously protected as national monuments after Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management released a controversial management plan for the Grand Staircase—Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. The new management plan opens up the Monuments for grazing, mining and energy extraction and potentially other development.

Critics warn the move will open up the region to ranchers who want to graze livestock and energy and mineral companies looking to cash in on the area’s oil, gas, and coal.

The final plans largely reflect the preferred alternatives released by Interior last summer.

The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments area in southeastern Utah is a giant expanse of red rocks, thick forests and high plateaus along the Northwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau.

The land is sacred to many Native American tribes. It’s also used for cattle grazing by nearby ranchers and contains fossil fuel deposits. Outdoor enthusiasts treasure the landscape, parts of which are world-class rock climbing destinations. The region has been the focus of bitter land wars between locals and the federal government for decades.

The area is a world-renowned hotbed of paleontological research, and a major economic driver for small businesses around the Colorado Plateau.

Home to Hopi, Diné, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni peoples

Newspaper Rock in San Juan County, UT
Newspaper Rock nearby in San Juan County, UT

Bears Ears is the first tribally requested national monument and has been home to Hopi, Diné, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni peoples since time immemorial, it was designated as a national monument in 2016 to protect countless archaeological, cultural, and natural resources, including the wealth of traditional knowledge that Native people hold for this region.

The earliest the government could approve new mining claims and other kinds of development is Oct. 1, because of language Congress adopted in a recent spending bill.

Officials from the Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service who manage the lands have said the new plans balance the region’s economic interests against the need to safeguard natural and cultural wonders. Casey Hammond, the Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, noted that the areas excluded from monuments are still protected by federal environmental laws.

“We are advancing our goal to restore trust and be a good neighbor,” Hammond said Thursday.

But Hopi Tribal Vice Chair Clark Tenakhongva said: “The Trump administration’s effort to preempt any adverse ruling by prematurely finalizing the land management planning process for the illegally declared Shash Jaa and Indian Creek units, unequivocally demonstrates a complete disregard for Native American concerns and blatant disrespect for the cultural landscape protections the Tribes have sought.”

Bill Doelle, President and CEO, Archaeology Southwest said “The final management plan has serious inadequacies that the federal agencies have failed to address. The decision to retain these flaws is particularly insulting to the Tribes who led the effort to establish Bears Ears National Monument. Archaeology Southwest continues to stand with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and our conservation partners in demanding proper management of these lands.”

Under the plan, much of Bears Ears and nearly 1 million acres in and around Grand Staircase will be open to grazing.

BLM will also make two new routes in Grand Staircase open to off-road vehicles, which archaeologists and conservationists are concerned could damage vulnerable artifacts and natural features.

Chaining may increase

The plans don’t allow for commercial logging, according to Kimberly Finch, communications director for Bureau of Land Management Utah. But trees and other vegetation can be cut as part of sometimes controversial “treatments.”

Utah chaining operation clears land for cattle. The BLM also says the projects help reducing fire hazards but that claim is dubious according to the Grand Canyon Trust.

Chaining, the process of linking two bulldozers with a chain pulled across Juniper covered land to create open space for grazing cattle along with other highly destructive vegetation removal protocols, such as use of bull hogs, are not only permitted in the Monument, but the plan now calls for vegetation treatments to be “maintained or increased.”

The draft plan had limited chaining to “previously chained areas.” However, the new final plan appears to allow chaining throughout much of the monument at a manager’s discretion.

Emily Hayes reports for the Durango Herald that Peter Ortego, attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said the Trump administration did not have the legal right to release these plans.

“I anticipate a lot of challenges,” Ortego said, since the Trump administration’s plans will have to go through various courts before they are implemented, and Ortego believes the tribes will be successful in their lawsuit to redesignate the lands as national monuments.

“The Utes have occupied that area for time eternal,” and for the Trump administration to move forward developing the land without their involvement is “an affront to human dignity, as far as I’m concerned,” Ortego told the Herald.

“When we don’t work together, it delays the resolution of issues, and no one really wins,” Ortego said.

In one small difference from the draft the BLM reversed its proposal to return livestock grazing along some 40 miles of the Escalante River. That notion drew fire from groups that invested heavily in restoring the fragile desert corridor. The BLM previously had removed cattle from the river running through the Escalante Canyons portion of the Staircase monument and it has since become a popular hiking destination.

Angelo Baca at the United Nations. Photo courtesy Utah Diné Bikéyah
Angelo Baca at the United Nations. Photo courtesy Utah Diné Bikéyah

“A silver lining on a very dark day,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “That was the right decision, but there are still a lot of problems with grazing in the [Grand Staircase] monument on lands where it had been eliminated and retired.”

UN opposed reduction of monument

On January 30, 2018, UN Special Rapporteur Tauli-Corpuz issued a statement about Bears Ears saying, “The decision to reduce the area included in the national monument by 85 percent is a huge setback for the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. It exposes thousands of acres of sacred lands and archaeological sites to the threats of desecration, contamination and permanent destruction.” Article 11 of UNDRIP, asserts that “Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, …etc.” This well-established principle was realized by local Indigenous people and their parent Tribes who requested the Bears Ears National Monument status to preserve this sacred living cultural landscape.

New ATV trails to be developed

Indian Creek Bears Ears National Monument may see development of ATV trails
Indian Creek Bears Ears National Monument will be slated for development of ATV trails

Unlike the provisions of the Obama monument proclamation, which precluded new motorized roads throughout the Monument, this plan allows for new ATV route development in culturally rich and scenic areas. In the Indian Creek area, the plan would facilitate the approval of new routes called for in an old San Juan County travel plan devised by off road riding associations.

Garfield County commissioners said the new plan fixes “problems” with the original plan, which they maintain made it impossible to develop recreational amenities and ignored the concerns of local officials.

“This plan increases access for the visiting public, does a better job at managing, preserving and interpreting sensitive resources, and allows federal agencies more flexibility in restoring the productive health of our federal lands,” the commissioners said in a joint statement thanking the BLM. “We are no longer forgotten.”

River House Ruin along the San Juan River in Southeastern Utah
River House Ruin along the San Juan River in Southeastern Utah could see higher pressure from tourists.

Removal of juniper and pinyon forests, often done to clear land for grazing or fire management, will be allowed within the boundaries of the smaller monuments. Strict limits on visitors have in some cases been rolled back, more than doubling the size of groups allowed to enter areas with cultural resources, such as the River House cliff dwelling near the San Juan River.

But Josh Ewing executive director of the conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa responded, saying “The [Bears Ears] plan released today reveals that it is actually worse than the [draft] plan we protested last year.”  Ewing continued,  “One truly positive element that was previously proposed, a provision to have hikers pack out their excrement from the Comb Ridge and other highly visited areas, was removed. This disappointing change means the significant problem of human waste will continue to be a public health issue. It also shows enormous disrespect for cultural sites and the indigenous people who consider them to be sacred.”

Utah Diné Bikéyah — an indigenous-led pro-monument group — also dismissed the Bears Ears plan as another example of the federal government ignoring the sovereignty of the five tribes that proposed Bears Ears and are now suing to restore the monument.

“Our concern, among other things, is that the [plan] fails to include proper cultural and environmental protections, and leaves out the voice of tribes and the elders who hold the most knowledge for these ancestral, public lands,” said Davis Filfred, the group’s board chairman.

While lands that remain in the monuments are off-limits to mineral development, large tracts removed from the Staircase will be available to extraction if the courts uphold Trump’s order. These excluded lands, mostly on the Kaiparowits Plateau, are known to hold vast reserves of coal and lesser amounts of oil, as well as uranium on Cedar Mesa.

“These plans represents the lowest common denominator for BLM stewardship, one of the wildest landscapes in the lower forty-eight states will be lost if these plans are carried into action over the next few years.”

“These plans are the fruit of the poisonous tree, and we are confident they will be swept aside,” Bloch said.

Shaun Chapoose, Coalition Co-Chair; Representative for Ute Indian Tribe

“The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is united in opposition to the Administration’s Monument Management Plan. This is just another in a series of unlawful actions reducing and revoking the Bears Ears National Monument. The President’s action and this Management Plan eliminates protections for more than 1 million acres including hundreds of thousands of priceless and significant cultural, natural and sacred objects. The Administration is failing in its treaty and trust responsibilities to Indian tribes.”

Davis Filfred, Board Chairman, Utah Diné Bikéyah

“The Trump Administration’s final management plan for Bears Ears National Monument is an example of how the federal government continues to ignore Indigenous voices, and the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni, who among many Indigenous governments and peoples, are in a lawsuit challenging the dismantling of Bears Ears National Monument. Our concern, among other things, is that the ROD fails to include proper cultural and environmental protections, and leaves out the voice of Tribes and the elders who hold the most knowledge for these ancestral, public lands.”

Shaun Chapoose, for the Ute Indian Tribe

Shaun Chapoose, a representative for the Ute Indian Tribe and co-chairperson for the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, said in a statement that the Trump administration is “failing in its treaty and trust responsibilities to Indian tribes” by eliminating protections for “thousands of priceless and significant cultural, natural and sacred objects.”

Peter Ortego, attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe

The Trump administration did not have the legal right to release these plans.

“I anticipate a lot of challenges,” Ortego said, since the Trump administration’s plans will have to go through various courts before they are implemented, and Ortego believes the tribes will be successful in their lawsuit to redesignate the lands as national monuments.

“The Utes have occupied that area for time eternal,” and for the Trump administration to move forward developing the land without their involvement is “an affront to human dignity, as far as I’m concerned.”

Hopi Tribal Vice Chair Clark Tenakhongva

“The Trump administration’s effort to preempt any adverse ruling by prematurely finalizing the land management planning process for the illegally declared Shash Jaa and Indian Creek units, unequivocally demonstrates a complete disregard for Native American concerns and blatant disrespect for the cultural landscape protections the Tribes have sought.”

Jim Enote, Zuni Pueblo

The Zuni people emerged from within the earth to the surface at a place within the Grand Canyon, and emerged from the canyon and began exploring all the tributaries of the Colorado River, [settling] in what is called the Bear Ears area in what is now southeastern Utah. They lived there for quite a long time and built villages and farms and homes and shrines and altars. Once those structures were built, they were consecrated. Once they’re consecrated they become sacred forever. We never consider them abandoned.

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