- In October 2021, President Joe Biden restored protections to Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah after it was drastically reduced in size by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
- The monument is known for its scenic views as well as thousands of sacred, cultural and archaeological sites.
- Now, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — made up of leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe — is working on a land management plan that keeps the interests of each tribe in mind as the federal government moves forward with its own plan.
- Co-chair Carleton Bowekaty says he hopes the plan will be a “living document” that will be used even when administrations change and that the efforts will keep the land intact for future generations.
Ida Yellowman stood at the top of Muley Point, seeing memories in every cardinal direction. To the north was Bears Ears and the Abajo Mountains, rock-strewn landscape where she first learned to hunt with her dad and brothers. The south held views stretching out through the Mexican Hat area on to Arizona, the landscape marred by uranium mines: as a nurse she couldn’t help but see the faces of the people she took care of, sick from the uranium.
Yellowman turned to the others in her group, one holding up a cellphone trying to catch a signal. The voice of U.S. President Joe Biden came through, announcing restored protections for Bears Ears National Monument. The president’s voice was followed by that of Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary in the United States.
Singing, prayers and a sense of relief filled the air.
“It put my mind at ease that people can hear each other,” says Yellowman, a member of the Navajo Nation and co-founder of the organization Women of Bears Ears.
“We all have our own history and legends and stories connected to that place. And we’re all in it together.”
Biden restored the Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah on Oct. 7, 2021, reversing the actions of his predecessor, Donald Trump who slashed the size of the protected area by 85%. Biden called for protections across 1.36 million acres (550,400 hectares) — slightly larger than the original boundary established by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Now, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of leaders from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe, are working as co-managers to develop a plan that represents each tribe’s interests. The land management plan is rooted in their perspectives and place-based conservation strategies that they’ve held for centuries.
“We’re reflecting on our cultural values, yet still meeting the needs of our people,” says Carleton Bowekaty, lieutenant governor for the Pueblo of Zuni and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
‘The Bears Ears is a holy place’
Hoon’Naqvut (Hopi), Shash Jaa’ (Navajo), Kwiyagatu Nukavachi (Ute), Ansh An Lashokdiwe (Zuni), or Bears Ears, is a place that is sacred but also important to daily life, says Meredith Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and co-founder of the Women of Bears Ears.
Bears Ears is known for its stunning cliff dwellings that serve as a backdrop for thousands of sacred, cultural and archaeological sites. Tribes also still use the area to hunt and gather food.
“We’re tied to it not just physically, but spiritually, mentally and emotionally,” Benally says.
Obama established Bears Ears National Monument by presidential proclamation at the end of his presidency on Dec. 28, 2016. Yellowman recalled the day the proclamation was made, thinking about her mom who was very active in the grassroots efforts to bring protections to Bear Ears. Her mom passed away one month before the proclamation.
“She would tell me: ‘Shash Jaa’ hogodanin aze’e’ doo ch’il ho’lo,’” says Yellowman. This meant that “the Bears Ears is a holy place where the medicine and plants grow.”
When she saw the proclamation, she read it word for word to honor her mother. And she was heartbroken when Trump “took it away.”
After Trump cut the Bears Ears protections, many feared that it would open the door to extractive industries, like uranium mining.
Uranium was once mined just outside the monument’s boundaries, and between 2017 and 2021, just before Biden restored Bears Ears to its full size, mining companies proposed 14 new claims within the original boundaries. Although mines are not currently active, they’ve left scars on the landscape and remain hazardous to humans and wildlife.
Other major threats to this day are vandalism and looting of art, rock carvings and burial sites. Last year the coalition sent a letter to Biden to bring attention to this threat, showing mud smeared over the carvings.
Restoration of the monument and co-management by the tribes are positive moves forward to preserve the land for future generations, say both Bowekaty and Benally.
“I’m glad there are people out there in the world that believe in this. Believe in us as a people. Believe in the Earth as it is,” Yellowman says.
Part of Obama’s proclamation in 2016 included an inter-tribal commission that would work together to educate and inform land management practices. Today, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of one leader from each of the five tribes, keeps tribal interests and priorities at the forefront and helps to coordinate efforts.
Trump took office one month after the proclamation, leaving the group little time to get its footing before the new administration cut protections. Prior to this move, the group referred to itself as a commission. But as soon as the protected area was reduced and litigation ensued, it started calling itself a coalition, says Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, because the members didn’t want to seem like they were acquiescing.
Since Biden restored the monument, the coalition is working toward creating a land management plan that should be completed by the end of June, pending approval from the tribal governments of the five coalition tribes.
“We know that communities of color suffer in an exponential way relative to climate change and environmental degradation,” Gonzales-Rogers says. “We should not just be people that have their opinions solicited. We should be a primary integer to the calculus of problem-solving and decision-making.”
There’s a long checklist of issues that need to be considered in the land management plan, like signage, transportation, and recreational access.
Gonzales-Rogers says he anticipates the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service won’t complete their land management until 2024. At that point, all three groups will interface their respective plans, he says.
Bears Ears National Monument is in a unique situation because it’s off-reservation, but still has ancestral ties, putting it in “a gray area,” says Gonzales-Rogers. Native American tribes operate from a certain budget administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the reservations, and they don’t want to ask for more money because it takes away from their total budget, he says.
Now that the monument is restored, it’s the government’s responsibility to provide the tribes with resources to manage the land, Gonzales-Rogers says. According to him, the tribes have not received a single dollar from the federal government to date; instead, the money has come from philanthropic and conservation groups.
Success will be measured by “how comprehensive the federal government is willing to underwrite these activities and place the tribes in the most successful position,” Gonzales-Rogers adds.
The coalition is still in the process of determining what the road map for co-management will look like, according to Gonzales-Rogers. But the delay isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he adds, because the federal agencies will be able to look to the coalition’s plan and use it as an in instructional document.
“While there’s a delay, that delay also presents an opportunity,” he says.
‘A wish of so many generations’
Bowekaty, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chair, says he hopes they can find a bipartisan solution with the government and create a combined land management plan that will be a “living document” so there won’t be a back and forth in protections when administrations change. He also says he hopes it will inspire future generations.
“I can tell you that some kids on a reservation think that this is a dead-end place … but really, their existence here is a wish of so many generations,” Bowekaty says. “I want our kids to be confident in the fact that they can go into any of our public places throughout the southwest and they’ll know how to visit with respect and hopefully educate others the way I’ve been educated.”
Benally, from Women of Bears Ears, also says it’s important to instill appreciation for traditions in younger generations, regardless of the progress that’s made elsewhere.
The monument is not just a sacred place, she says. “It’s a place for healing and it’s a warrior mountain.”
It’s a symbol, she adds, “to know to stand up for issues when they come to us … even within our personal selves when we’re trying to overcome adversity in our lives.”
Banner image: Bears Ears is known for its stunning cliff dwellings that serve as a backdrop for thousands of sacred, cultural and archaeological sites. Tribes also still use the area to hunt and gather food. Image by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: There’s growing recognition of how vital Indigenous-led conservation practices are to protecting the planet, listen here: