Zuni Elder Octavius Seowtewa may have said it best when he opined on the value of southeast Utah's Bears Ears region in a report published by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition: "This is why tribes have set aside any differences and come together: if this information is lost, it’s lost forever.”
That "information," of course, is the wealth of Native American archaeological and ancestral sites—estimated at 100,000—that make Bears Ears a national treasure. Perhaps nowhere in the world are so many well-preserved cultural resources—from ancient ruins to intricate 1,500-year-old petroglyphs—found within such a striking and relatively undeveloped natural landscape.
And now, Bears Ears will preserve the traditions of past generations for the benefit of future generations. On Dec. 28, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Bears Ears National Monument, the same day he designated Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.
Click photo for slideshow; all images by Mason Cummings (TWS)
“All Americans can join in the celebration of our newest national monuments that recognize the importance of our Native American history and the living landscapes where Native culture continues to thrive today," Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said in a statement.
The designations are all the more significant because of the current political landscape. Anti-conservation zealots in Washington DC are trying to enact a radical agenda that includes making it harder for future presidents to protect landscapes like this. We need to raise our voices right now and ask lawmakers in Washington DC to stand in their way.
President Obama's actions acknowledge the long standing pressure to protect this sensitive region. Despite its tremendous importance, Bears Ears has been under attack for years, with dozens of cases of looting, vandalism or other damage, including names gouged into rock art and even "disturbance of human remains." In October, the National Trust For Historic Preservation named the area one of the most "endangered" historical sites in America due to a combination of scant staffing and misuse by visitors.
Some tribal leaders expressed concerns that unchecked vandalism would leave important sites in Bears Ears completely ruined. But thanks to their tireless advocacy, as well as thousands of comments submitted by our members in the last year, it has become a national monument instead, meaning the area will be prioritized for more funding for staff, management and law enforcement. Additionally, the area will now be off-limits to mining and oil and gas development.
Native Tribes led the campaign to protect Bears Ears
Politicians in Utah have often claimed to care about this remarkable landscape, but they have not followed through with plans to protect it. Just as significantly, they did not adequately consult with Native American Tribes.
Early in 2016, a coalition of tribes said that the major legislative solution offered to protect Bears Ears would not offer the safeguards necessary to prevent looting. From there, a coalition of five tribes, supported by 21 others with direct ties to the region, led the charge to find an alternative, petitioning President Obama to protect Bears Ears as a national monument. This was thought to be the first time Native tribes had ever joined forces to ask a president to designate a national monument.
This monument designation is a great victory for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the Tribes it represents, but also for Utahns more broadly. Polling has shown that 71 percent of registered Utah voters support monument status, and outdoor industry leaders have spoken out in support of the move, hailing its importance for the economy. Recently, many national voices have joined the chorus, with everyone from rock-climbers to conservation groups like The Wilderness Society asking the White House to #ProtectBearsEarsNow.
President Obama's use of the Antiquities Act is especially apt in this case. The law, which has been used on a bipartisan basis by almost every president, originally grew out of a movement to preserve deteriorating archaeological resources from vandalism.
Bears Ears is also a prized outdoor recreation spot and wildland
Sometimes lost in the justified focus on Bears Ears' cultural significance is its bounty of natural treasures.
Nestled immediately to the south and east of Canyonlands National Park, the region is named for two sandstone-fringed buttes jutting about 2,000 feet up from the mesa that somewhat resemble an ursine head poking over the horizon. Bears Ears National Monument covers more than 1 million acres of stunning pinon-juniper forests and desert dotted with yucca, sagebrush and red-tinged sandstone carved into dramatic mesas, canyons and arches. Wildlife that calls the area home includes pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, black bears and peregrine falcons.
Additionally, hiking, camping, rock-climbing and backpacking are staple recreation activities in Bears Ears, which is bordered by the San Juan River along the southern edge. The natural attractions of the region are evident even when the sun goes down, as the remote, wide-open landscape means night skies dark enough to fully showcase the stars overhead.
Whether you focus on its ancient ruins and other precious cultural resources or its rugged natural beauty, it is clear that Bears Ears is a remarkable example of Our Wild, and precisely the kind of place we work so hard to protect.