By Katie Stevens, Blog Writing Intern.
Near the Four Corners area in Southeastern Utah lies a vast area of beautiful country known as Bears Ears. Bears Ears is full of winding canyons, mesas, arches, and thousands of archaeological and cultural sites. At least once a year, for the last 15 years, I have sat on the southern point of one of these mesas and watched the sun dip down, painting Monument Valley hazy shades of pink and purple.
In recent years, as I have sat in silent awe of the beauty unfolding around me, I have felt an urgency to appreciate these moments, to remember every detail of what the landscape around me looks like. My sense of urgency is rooted in the unknown future of the area, as Bears Ears has practically no environmental or cultural protections in place and faces threats of development, environmental degradation, and looting of cultural sites.
In 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of five sovereign tribes, devised a proposal for the future of Bears Ears. The Coalition proposed that President Obama use the Antiquities Act to designate 1.9 million acres in the Bears Ears region a national monument. For Inter-Tribal Coalition members, designating Bears Ears as a national monument enables them to maintain their relationship with the land, continuing traditional practices, and keeping the land healthy by halting further development and extraction.
Since the proposal, the Bears Ears region has been in the middle of a national and state-wide tug-o-war between various stakeholders. For those supporting the national monument, the Inter-Tribal Coalition Members’ proposal focuses on the intrinsic value the land has to offer economically (through tourism and respectful visitors) and for the welfare of all Americans (as a place for adventure, healing, and personal and spiritual growth). However, those in opposition are not convinced that focusing on tourism alone will be enough. To some of these stakeholders, designation of the monument would inhibit new mining and drilling opportunities, and could hurt local economies dependent on working the land. Additionally, opponents are concerned about the president unilaterally placing restrictions on Utah land.
For example, some members of the Navajo Nation living in San Juan County are against the national monument designation. Many are concerned that the Native American management would not be part of the designation and their access would be restricted. A proposed solution from Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz; the Public Lands Initiative Act, would attempt to balance conservation and development under state leadership.
Through Bishop and Chaffetz’ Public Lands Initiative, Bears Ears would be considered a Conservation Area in which Native Peoples could continue traditional use. However, many stakeholders in favor of the monument solution believe the PLI contains concerning proposals. Some of the areas the proposal declares ‘National Conservation Areas’ may be subject to oil and gas leasing, in accordance with The Mineral Leasing Act. It is also blatantly stated in the act that there will be no protective buffering zones surrounding wilderness areas, which means drilling and mining could done right on the border of these designations.
Dispute over public land management in Utah is not new, but President Obama’s time in office is almost up, and with it, his ability to designate the Bears Ears National Monument. At the same time, the Public Lands Initiative has recently passed the House Natural Resources Committee and is on its way to a full House vote. It is time for a decision to be made on the future of this land.
Personally, I support the national monument designation. It is my hope that we may all have the opportunity to sit on the edge of a mesa and watch colors dance across Monument Valley. I believe that national monument status would protect the land from development, mining, drilling, and provide the means to protect cultural sites from looting and degradation.
I urge you to keep up with this issue, form your own opinion, and act on it. Be a part of the change you believe is right before the decision is made without you.
Katie Stevens is a Senior working towards Bachelor’s degrees in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Health, Society, and Policy.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed within this blog are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Sustainability Office or the University of Utah.