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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Despite Promises From Biden, Future Of Bears Ears Is Still Uncertain

Two red rock buttes covered in cedar bushes stick up over a cedar covered landscape.
Wild Earth Guardians
Creative Commons
The Bears Ears buttes are located in the Shash Jaa unit of Bears Ears National Monument. President Donald Trump broke the monument into two units when he reduced its size from 1.35 million to 202,000 acres in 2017.

Bears Ears National Monument is a huge, geologically diverse landscape with one of the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in the country. It’s also a very important place to Native American tribes, including the Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi and Zuni, whose ancestors all lived off the land at one point.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments, according to the Tribal Nations platform on his website. President Donald Trump shrunk the monument in 2017 by 85%.

For Mark Maryboy, Bears Ears is a place to pray and celebrate. The former San Juan County Commissioner and Navajo Tribal Council member grew up visiting the sacred landscape to perform traditional ceremonies.

He also helped fight for its protection, collecting stories from Navajo elders about the importance of the area and forming a non-profit group called Utah Diné Bikeyah. He said he can’t wait to return if the full monument is restored by Biden.

“We're going to have a blessing-way ceremony,” Maryboy said. “The people, my family, need to finish some of the songs, some of the prayers that were left undone, and protection for human beings will begin again.”

But a new executive order won’t permanently protect the monuments, since it could be overturned by the next president. That’s according to Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which was formed by five tribes to advocate for Bears Ears National Monument.

The coalition is currently suing the Trump administration over its 2017 decision. Chapoose said if Biden dismisses that lawsuit when he restores the monument, the next president could shrink Bears Ears again.

“It’s like playing high-stakes poker, you know, you're putting the chips on the table, and the chips are the monument,” Chapoose said. “We need some more certainty.”

He said he’d like to see the lawsuit, which also applies to the revised Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, play out, since it would settle the question of whether a president can undo monuments created by another president under the Antiquities Act.

Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. John Curtis, R-UT, echoed the need for certainty in statements to the Salt Lake Tribune — but they argue the solution should come from Congress, not the courts.

“For the last three years, I’ve worked hard to establish the trust needed with Native American tribes and local residents to bring long-term certainty to San Juan County through federal legislation,” Curtis said.

He introduced a bill in 2017 to codify the revised monument boundaries, but it stalled in Congress following Natural Resource subcommittee hearings in 2018.

Starting Over

If Bears Ears is restored by Biden, it could also reset plans to manage the monument, which the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have been working on since 2017.

A photo of Shaun Chapoose.
Youtube Screengrab
Shaun Chapoose testified against legislation filed by John Curtis to codify the smaller Bears Ears boundaries during a U.S. House Federal Lands Subcommittee hearing in 2018.

In his 2016 monument proclamation, then-President Barack Obama specified that a tribal commission should be involved in the monument’s management. On top of that, the BLM and USFS have a legal duty to consult with tribes regarding cultural resources, like archeological sites.

But neither of those have happened, according to Chapoose. Instead, management decisions for Bears Ears have largely been up toa small group of local stakeholders selected by the Secretary of the Interior called the Monument Advisory Committee.

“What gives a Navajo the right to tell me what to do with my Ute stuff? What gives a Mormon the right to say, ‘I’ll protect your graves?’ It’s offensive,” Chapoose said.

The Inter-Tribal Coalition has been developing its own plans for the monument’s management, according to Chapoose. They are far from complete, he said, but the tribes are looking forward to bringing them to the BLM and USFS if the monument — and the tribes’ seats at the table — are restored.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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