The Long History and Uncertain Future of Bears Ears National Monument: A Timeline

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February 15, 2013: Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz advocate to have Bears Ears protected as part of that bill, dubbed the Public Lands Initiative. Getty Images

Designating a National Monument is a popular legacy-bolstering tradition for many outgoing presidents — George W. Bush preserved more than 200 million acres, and Bill Clinton protected some five million. But contrary to popular political opinion, the process isn’t as simple as pulling land out of a hat and signing for it. Take Bears Ears for example, one million acres in southeastern Utah’s canyon country that President Barack Obama designated as a National Monument shortly before leaving office. You could say the lobby for protecting this land, which borders Canyonlands National Park, started in 1903, when archeologists, who were interested in exploring the region’s 100,000 known sites, called to protect it. Several southwestern tribes trace their ancestry directly back to the ancient people who have populated the area since 12,000 B.C. 

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In many ways, Bears Ears is exactly the sort of landscape that Congress envisioned when they created the 1906 Antiquities Act: a culturally significant place under threat, in this case from oil and gas interests and destructive recreation practices (the land is already public, managed by the BLM and Forest Service). And while the use of the Antiquities Act has rarely been controversial, the designation of Bears Ears by President Obama has met fierce opposition from the moment he signed. Here’s a look at all the events leading up to his signature, starting with the initial contact between a Utah tribe and the U.S. government seven years prior.

May 2010: One of Utah’s eight tribes, the Navajo, whose ancestral lands encompass all of San Juan county where Bear Ears is located, form a committee to communicate the Navajo people’s cultural needs and land stewardship values to elected officials. The committee later becomes the non-profit Utah Diné Bikeyah, or “people’s sacred lands” in the Navajo language.

August 18, 2010: Utah Diné Bikeyah submits a preliminary land-use proposal to Republican Senator Bob Bennet’s office requesting federal protection for Bears Ears and the surrounding canyon-cut landscape. These wildlands are known to contain at least 100,000 indigenous archaeological sites including petroglyphs, pictographs, cliff dwellings, and graves, as well as natural wonders like Valley of the Gods, a massive wind- and water-sculpted sandstone corridor of remarkable rock formations. Navajo hero Chief Manuelito, who led the resistance to tribal relocation, was born in these lands, and certain medicinal herbs can only be found here. Bennet is receptive, but fails to get re-elected in November.

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July 2010: Utah Diné Bikeyah publishes a book, Diné Bikeyah describing the Native American cultural value of the land in San Juan county. The book proposes federal protection for Bears Ears through the creation of a National Conservation Area, to be jointly managed by the Utah Navajo.

July 22, 2011: Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley sends a copy of the book Diné Bikeyah to Juan Palma, Utah’s state director for the Bureau of Land Management, and then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, with a letter outlining the Navajo people’s hope to make Bears Ears a National Conservation Area, and requesting that the Navajo Nation have a formal role in the planning process.

February 15, 2013: Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both from Utah, announce that they intend to sponsor a federal land-use bill to solve land-dispute issues between conservation and economic development. They advocate to have Bears Ears protected as part of that bill, dubbed the Public Lands Initiative (PLI).

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August 9, 2013: As part of a PLI meeting at the San Juan County Courthouse in Monticello, Utah, Utah Diné Bikeyah and the Navajo Nation present a comprehensive Bears Ears conservation proposal. The proposal requests the area be co-managed by the Navajo Nation and that the Native Americans can continue traditional uses of the land for ceremonies, wood-gathering, and herb collection. It also includes official boundaries, for a total of 1.9 million acres. Some of the included land, like Raplee Anticline and most of Lime Ridge between Mexican Hat and Comb Ridge, is important for oil development and limestone quarrying, and the Utah Diné Bikeyah and Navajo Nation seeks to prohibit these activities.

September 19, 2014: After more than a year passes without response from Congressmen Bishop over Native American concerns for Bears Ears, Utah Diné Bikeyah reaches out to Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, requesting federal protection for Bears Ears in the form of a National Monument.

April 17, 2015: Utah’s five tribes — Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian, and Pueblo of Zuni — form The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to advocate for Bears Ears as a 1.9-million-acre National Monument. It marks the first time in history that a coalition of sovereign tribes requests the protection of their historical and cultural landscape.

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April 20, 2015: Outdoor Industry giant Patagonia joins the fight for Bears Ears, publishing a blog post written by Willie Grayeyes, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Utah Diné Bikéyah, that includes a short film “Defined by the Line” about the value of Bears Ears to the rock climbing and outdoor recreation community. Bears Ears becomes a conservation priority.

July 17, 2015: Federal government officials (including National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Butch Blazer, Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Steve Ellis, U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Chief of Staff Nikki Buffa, and U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn) visit Bears Ears and meet with the Inter-Tribal Coalition to discuss competing land-use ideas for Bears Ears, as well as how co-management would occur between the tribes, the BLM, and the Forest Service. Additional meetings are held as the Inter-Tribal Coalition seeks to complete a National Monument Proposal for President Obama.

October 15, 2015: The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition submits the 66-page “Proposal to President Obama for the Creation of Bears Ears National Monument.” The proposal outlines how joint management would occur, namely through the creation of an entity made up of a representative from each of the five tribes participating in Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The proposal also includes several notable provisions, including:

  • All existing mineral rights should be honored, but future mining should be prohibited in Bears Ears.
  • Grazing under existing permits or leases should continue under existing law.
  • State of Utah and Ute Mountain Ute hunting and fishing laws should continue to apply within the monument.
  • Motorized vehicle use should be permitted only on designated roads.
  • Non-motorized mechanized vehicle use should be permitted only on roads and trails designated for their use consistent with the purposes of the monument.

January 20, 2016: Congressmen Bishop releases the draft of the PLI bill, following three years of data collection, meetings, and public forums. The draft includes federal protection for 1.39 million acres of Bears Ears, some of which would be designated as wilderness, but does not include joint management with the tribes. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition opposes it for failing to address Native American requests and considerations.

July 16, 2016: Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, along with Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie, and other senior Administration officials visit Bears Ears along with staff from Utah Governor Herbert’s office and Utah Congressional delegation staff. Jewell hosts a meeting at the Community Center in Bluff, Utah to get public comment on permanent protection for Bears Ears in the form of a National Monument. Thousands of people, both for and against, gather outside. Inside, 50 people give testimony, including Native Americans, ranchers, rock climbers, environmentalists, and even a descendant of Mormon pioneers who settled in the area. Some individuals raise concerns about a National Monument designation for Bears Ears, such as a mistrust of federal government, but the majority speak in favor of a new monument.

December 16: 2016: Congress adjourns for 2016 without having voted on PLI.

December 28, 2016: President Obama signs a Proclamation establishing Bears Ears as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The designation is a compromise between the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition proposal and Congressmen Bishop’s PLI draft. Its boundaries are more closely in line with PLI, at 1.35 million acres, an olive branch to oil and gas developers. Perhaps most notably, the Proclamation includes the provision that the land will be overseen with input from a commission made up of one elected officer from each of the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s five tribes, granting them unprecedented authority over ancestral lands.

February 3, 2017: Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert signs a resolution calling for President Trump to rescind Bears Ears National Monument. It’s unclear whether Trump has the authority to do it unilaterally.

February 7, 2017: Congressman Jason Chaffetz meets with President Trump and urges him to rescind the Bears Ears designation.

February 16, 2017: After an unproductive phone call between Governor Gary Herbert and outdoor industry leaders — including those at the helm of Patagonia, The North Face, and REI — the company behind the Outdoor Retailer trade show, which brings in roughly $45 million to Salt Lake City each year, decides to leave the state in protest over calls to rescind Bears Ears. 

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