Cliffs at Bears Ears. Photo by Stephen Strom.

Bears Ears: Setting the Stage

Prose by Rebecca Robinson + Photos by Stephen Strom

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Bears Ears: A Series Set in Southeast Utah  


This post to the new series titled “Bears Ears” provides a brief overview of the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument and the ongoing political battle to defend or rescind it. Future installments will feature interviews with tribal leaders; Utah’s local, state, and Congressional elected officials; and others involved in the Bears Ears debate.
New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition, as well as their recent Letter to America.
The red rock country of southeast Utah is distinctively dramatic, a region so striking it has become a visual shorthand for the wild majesty of the West. Its iconic scenery creates a compelling backdrop—and battleground—for one of today’s most fractious and passionate debates over the future of public lands.

On December 28, 2016, President Barack Obama established Bears Ears National Monument, invoking his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect 1.35 million acres of land in San Juan County, Utah, land that had been proposed for protection for over a century.

“From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon,” President Obama’s proclamation states. “Protection of the Bears Ears area will preserve its cultural, prehistoric, and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources… for the benefit of all Americans.”

Sunset, Goosenecks of the San Jaun River
Sunset, Goosenecks of the San Juan River.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Significantly, Obama’s monument declaration provides Native Americans a powerful voice in managing a national monument that contains the history of their settlements, cultural evolution, and adaptation to a harsh environment. Representatives of the Native American tribes with current and ancestral ties to the area—the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, whose leaders comprise the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition—will for the first time work with their federal counterparts to set policies for preserving ancestral sites and artifacts and for ensuring continued access to monument lands for traditional cultural and spiritual uses.

The proclamation’s assertion that Native peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge “is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing land” acknowledges the central role the Coalition will play in developing guidelines for land use.

Carleton Bowekaty
Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni Councilman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chair.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

Zuni Councilman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chair Carleton Bowekaty thinks the tribes’ work to develop a management plan will set a global precedent.

“We want to see this developed into [a] working model that can be used by other nations and other entities hoping to protect cultural knowledge,” Bowekaty said.

Monument supporters in San Juan County and across the country exulted in their victory, celebrating a bold stroke that will protect land with unique scenic, geological, biological, and cultural riches for generations to come. Meanwhile, many San Juan County residents greeted the president’s decision with a mix of anger and apprehension. Anger, because they believe land was improperly withdrawn by an overreaching federal government which failed to listen to local voices. Apprehension, because they feel that the designation will threaten their livelihood by restricting ranching and mining on monument land, endanger the culture of their rural communities, and limit their access to land they have cherished and stewarded for over a century. 

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams herding cattle on his ranch.
Photo courtesy Bruce Adams.

Just hours after the monument was declared, the San Juan County Commissioners released a joint statement saying the county “mourns after President Barack Obama gave into pressure from extreme environmental groups, out-of-state tribal leaders, and outside interests.” Utah Governor Gary Herbert said he was “deeply disturbed” by a decision that “ignores the will of the majority of Utahns” and Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, called the “midnight monument” a “slap in the face to the people of Utah.” A month later, the Utah House of Representatives’ Rules Committee passed a resolution urging President Trump to rescind the monument and Representative Rob Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, vowed to do everything in his power not only to overturn the monument, but to repeal the Antiquities Act.

In response, the Outdoor Industry Association in February withdrew the annual Outdoor Retailer trade show from Salt Lake City. This was a significant forfeiture—the state lost $45 million in annual revenue, and earned the enmity of recreationists and conservationists across the U.S. Industry heavyweight Patagonia has launched a major national campaign to combat the Utah delegation’s efforts to rescind or shrink the monument.

On a national level, incoming Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pledged to make San Juan County his first stop as Interior Secretary. During his January 2017 confirmation hearing, Utah Senator Mike Lee implored Zinke to listen to the voices of locals affected by the Bears Ears designation.

Comb Ridge, Abaja Mountains, and Bluff Bench in winter
Comb Ridge, Abaja Mountains, and Bluff Bench in winter.
Photo by Stephen Strom.

“We are not ready to concede that the monument is going to look like it was proclaimed,” San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said. “We need to get the new Trump administration to weigh in on the monument.”

While lawyers note that a monument has never been rescinded, several monuments have been reduced in size through acts of Congress. While any such action would lead to years of litigation led by the tribes and conservation groups, the threats to Bears Ears are hardly idle as Utah’s politicians are well positioned to undermine the monument. After achieving a historic step toward healing, the inter-tribal Coalition is girding for the possibility of a long battle with the federal government over the future of Bears Ears.

Next in the Series: The Tribes’ Next Steps



Rebecca RobinsonRebecca Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer. She has written for numerous print and online news outlets about crime, education, health care, social entrepreneurs, California’s prisons, state and federal medical marijuana laws, and homelessness, among other topics. She began her work on the manuscript for Views from the Colorado Plateau at the 2015 Fishtrap Summer Gathering of Writers. Currently a freelancer, Rebecca previously worked as a staff writer for Monterey County Weekly and a radio producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Stephen StromStephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Header photo of cliffs in Bluff, Utah by Stephen Strom. Photo of Rebecca Robinson by Peter Crabtree. Photo of Stephen Strom courtesy Stephen Strom.

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