Obama declares Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah
Obama made the designation at the behest of five Indian tribes with ancestral and spiritual ties to Cedar Mesa, the highlands west of Blanding where ancient cultural sites abound.
The president also designated Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada. That 300,000-acre monument is near the ranch of Cliven Bundy, who stands charged, along with supporters, in the 2014 armed standoff with federal officers trying to seize his cattle.
Like Bears Ears, Gold Butte includes “abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” according to a White House statement.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama’s statement continues.
A Bears Ears Commission was also established to work with the federal Interior and Agriculture departments to craft a management plan for the monument that reflects “tribal expertise as well as traditional and historical knowledge,” according to a White House news release.
There has been broad agreement that the Bears Ears region should be protected, but opinions diverge sharply over the extent of that protection and the mechanism for achieving it.
The president’s proclamation sets aside two-thirds of the 1.9 million acres identified by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition for protection. Left out are lands west of Natural Bridges National Monument, including Red and Moki canyons, the Abajos and some lands around Bluff that are encumbered with oil and gas leasing.
But the coalition applauded Wednesday’s announcement, especially Obama’s emphasis on a Bears Ears Commission.
“For the first time in history, a president has used the Antiquities Act to honor the request of Tribal Nations to protect our sacred sites,” said David Filfred, Navajo Nation Council delegate.
Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, said on the White House conference call that the 1.35 million acres protected by Obama is the areas the tribes “most want” to be preserved. He said other discussions had ranged from 1.2 million acres to 1.9 million acres.
“The 1.35 [million acres] we feel is sufficient and the area where the designation covers are the areas where we feel is sacred to us and where our people gather herbs and where our people go out and do ceremonial events, and so we are elated to the fact that it will be designated as a national monument,” Begaye said.
Begaye added that the Bears Ears area is sacred and Wednesday’s announcement was an “exciting” moment after decades of efforts to preserve the area.
“The Bears Ears region is a special, distinctive and significant place to surrounding tribes as well as my nation, the Navajo nation,” Begaye said. “These places, the rocks, the wind the land, they are living breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
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Photo: Salt Lake Tribune, courtesy Josh Ewing. Comb Ridge, Utah.