Still in the crosshairs
Culture wars at root of embattled Bears Ears National Monument

Still in the crosshairs

A rainbow over Cheesebox Butte in Bears Ears National Monument. Nearly seven years after it was created, Bears Ears continues to be at the center of a power struggle. Conservationists and Native tribes want to see it preserved at its original 1.36 million acres while the state's Republican stronghold, and some white residents, consider it a "land grab" and affront to the "pioneer way of life."/ Photo by Stephen Trimble

Stephen Trimble - 03/28/2024

Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument rarely leaves the news. The political tussle over this stunning expanse of red rock canyons exemplifies all the cultural dissonance in the rural West. Three presidents have signed Bears Ears proclamations. Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, but supporters were devastated when Donald Trump eviscerated the monument the following year, reducing its area by 85%. In 2021, President Joe Biden restored the original boundaries and then some. 

What’s clear is that Bears Ears remains reviled by Republican officials and cherished by Indigenous tribes and conservationists. 

The monument, 1.36 million acres in southeast Utah, lies within San Juan County. The Navajo Nation comprises 25% of the county, and Native people account for more than half of the county’s 14,200-person population. Just 8% of the county is private land, while another 5% is state trust land. 

The rest – 62% of the county – is federal land owned by the people of the United States and administered by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. This immense commons testifies to the sublime difficulty of the place – beautiful enough to warrant preservation as national parks, monuments and forests. But it’s also arid enough to attract only a few 19th-century settlers to what had been Indigenous homeland for millennia.

I think it’s fair to say that San Juan County’s white residents never envisioned challenges to their political power. But in 2009, the feds came down hard on generations of casual pothunting by local white families. Then, after a century of oppressing their Indigenous neighbors, lawsuits strengthened Native voting rights. The county commission became majority Navajo from 2018-22. 

Native influence keeps expanding. The five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition first envisioned a national monument and became co-stewards for these 1.36 million acres. They have a champion in Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, but such historic changes make the dominant culture uneasy. 

In February, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox dramatically withdrew from a Bears Ears land exchange poised for completion. This swap of state trust lands for Bureau of Land Management lands would hugely benefit the state. Details were already negotiated; each side compromised; the stakeholders were largely content. 

But in 2024, Utah politics are stark, compounded by distrust and disinformation.

At statehood in 1896, Utah received four sections per township to support public schools and universities. The Utah Trust Lands Administration manages these scattered lands – blue squares on maps – but blocking up these blue squares into manageable parcels means trading land with federal agencies. 

Such trades aren’t rare and can be grand in scale. A 1998 negotiation between Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt traded Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument’s 176,000 acres of school sections for BLM land elsewhere – along with a hefty $50 million payment to Utah from the U.S. Treasury. Utah Trust Lands still brags about the deal on its website.

But the old guard is up in arms about the draft Bears Ears Resource Management Plan released for public comment March 8. The BLM’s preferred alternative emphasizes traditional Indigenous knowledge and land health. 

Any such gestures toward conservation elicit local outrage about the feds “destroying” the pioneer way of life. The subtext: the people long in charge don’t want to lose power. 

Denouncing federal overreach is always a sure win for Utah politicians. In this year’s Republican primary, San Juan County-based legislator Phil Lyman is challenging the incumbent governor with fierce anti-public lands rhetoric. Gov. Cox will need to protect his right flank.

Meanwhile, school trust lands within Bears Ears remain at risk. The tallest structure in Utah, a 460-foot telecom tower with blinking red lights, could rise on state land in the heart of the monument. It’s been approved by county planners, and the Trust Lands Administration could add poison pills on other lands proposed for exchange.

The elected leaders of Utah have decided that the monument’s integrity and the needs of the state’s children matter less than political gamesmanship. 

The five tribes of Bears Ears know better: “It is our obligation to our ancestors … and to the American people, to protect Bears Ears.” Their big hearts will win in the end.

Stephen Trimble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Utah and will publish the 35th anniversary edition of his book “The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin” next winter. 

 

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