From A to Zinke: A Beginner's Guide to the Bears Ears Saga

Mesas and Spires  Bears Ears Country

You may have heard a lot of hullabaloo about Bears Ears National Monument, likely accompanied by some combination of the following:  

  • Ryan Zinke
  • President Donald J. Trump
  • Executive Order
  • Antiquities Act
  • Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition
  • San Juan County, Utah
  • And, of course, Lawsuits

What does it all mean? Where does one even begin?  

One of the greatest challenges of this project has been trying to explain what our work is about to those unfamiliar with the story we have been following for well over two years. It is easy to spin off on numerous tangents informed by conversations and explorations conducted over hundreds of hours and thousands of miles. Conversely, it is also easy to boil down a nuanced and deeply complex story to the same half dozen or so headlines that pop up in our Google Alerts on the daily. So where is that space between over-explanation and over-simplification?  In this blog, and with our books, we are trying to create that space to provide context that is missing from many news stories and to humanize what can be complex and wonky issues.

With that in mind, let's take a whirlwind tour of the Bears Ears cultural and political landscape.

Question: When was Bears Ears National Monument established?

Answer: On December 28, 2016, by President Barack Obama. (Read the full presidential proclamation here.)

Q: Where is Bears Ears National Monument?

A: In San Juan County, Utah. Located in the state's southeastern corner, roughly the size of New Jersey, the county is the largest and poorest in the state. The name Bears Ears refers to the twin buttes within the monument that are sacred to the region's Native American tribes.

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Q: Hold up. Before we go any further, what is a national monument?

A: National monuments protect public lands via proclamation by the President of the United States under the executive powers granted him or her under the Antiquities Act of 1906. No new mining claims or oil and gas leases can be issued once a monument is declared, but existing mining claims will be honored and existing oil and gas wells may continue operating.

Q: And the Antiquities Act is...?

A: Enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Antiquities Act was signed into law in response to rampant looting of Native artifacts and archaeological sites in the American Southwest. The Act empowers the President to set aside monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” This includes landscapes containing vital ecosystems and paleontological  specimens.

Q: Who advocated for the creation of the monument?

A: The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, comprised of representatives from the Hopi Tribe, Zuni Pueblo, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (also known as the Uintah-Ouray Ute). The Coalition was in turn supported by a broad coalition of environmental organizations, outdoor recreation companies, and mostly Democratic politicians. Utah Dine Bikeyah, a grassroots, Native-led nonprofit, did the on-the-ground work of mapping Native cultural resources in the Bears Ears region to make a case for permanent protection of the area. 

Q: Why did they support the monument?

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A: Supporters noted that the land in question, featuring iconic red rock landscapes and Native American cultural resources, had been proposed for protection for more than 80 years. They contended that the land's natural beauty, diverse ecosystems, and cultural and spiritual significance to the region's Native peoples deserved to be preserved and protected from extractive industry activities such as mining and oil and gas drilling. Moreover, they pointed to examples of rural communities across the West that had been bolstered economically by building a tourist and recreation economy around the national parks and monuments in their backyards. What better way for an impoverished county like San Juan County to improve its fortune and create a sustainable economic future not dependent on boom-bust industries?

Q: Who opposed the monument?

A: Some (but not all) residents of San Juan County, both Anglo and Native; other rural Utahns and Westerners; Utah's Congressional delegation; and many Republican politicians.

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Q: Why did they oppose the monument?

A: Many feared that prohibiting future extractive industry development would devastate communities that historically had depended on revenue and royalties from uranium mining and oil and gas drilling to pay the bills. Some saw a tourism economy as a poor substitute for the high-wage jobs available in extractive industries, pointing to the seasonal nature of the work and the likelihood of low-wage jobs. Additionally, opponents resented "elites" from faraway Washington, D.C. making decisions about the management of land most of them had never seen.

Q: So what's this I hear about the monument being reduced or eliminated?

A: Bear with us here (so to speak), this is a tad complex:

The Utah Congressional delegation lobbied against the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument long before Obama penned the monument declaration. But it was not until after Obama designated Bears Ears that Rep. Rob Bishop, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Senate President Pro Tem Orrin Hatch (all Utah Republicans) kicked their anti-monument campaign into high gear. After several months of lobbying, their efforts bore fruit.

On April 26, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order instructing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monument designations from the past 21 years.  Why the review? Trump, to whom Sen. Hatch had made a compelling case, wanted Zinke to take a good, hard look at the monuments' acreage and decide whether they needed to be "right sized," i.e., reduced in acreage. Additionally, Zinke was to review the way in which the monuments were established. Was there ample public dialogue? Was there sufficient local support? Not surprisingly, the definition of "public dialogue" and "local support" were subjective and open to interpretation. 

The order encompassed dozens of monuments across numerous states, but clearly was motivated by the Utah delegation’s persistent calls for rescission of Bears Ears and a resizing of the still-contentious Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established in 1996. This has galvanized Trump's supporters in San Juan County and outraged the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and conservationists, significantly increasing tensions in the county.

The next month, Zinke visited San Juan County and the two counties - Garfield and Kane - where Grand Staircase-Escalante is located. His trip was notable for whom he met with - local government officials and representatives from the ranching community and extractive industries, all of whom opposed the creation of the monuments. Native advocacy group Utah Dine Bikeyah, whose grassroots work mapping cultural resources in San Juan County laid the foundation for the monument proposal, had its request for a meeting with Zinke denied. So too did the Escalante-Boulder Chamber of Commerce, comprised of business owners who tout the monument as essential to their livelihood. 

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Q: Thanks for the background. But where are we now?

A: Excellent question. Currently, both sides of the monument debate are still embroiled in bitter conflict, which has reached a fever pitch with the recent announcement by President Trump that he will travel to Utah in December to announce significant boundary changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. This ups the ante from the heretofore most controversial development: the appearance in August of a leaked copy of Zinke's required report. In it, Zinke issues broad recommendations for which monuments should stay as they are and which should be reduced. (Zinke did not call for outright recission of any monuments.) An Aug. 24 New York Times story cited multiple unnamed congressional aides and other anonymous sources as saying that Zinke was considering reducing Bears Ears from its current 1.35 million acres to 160,000 acres, but more specific details have yet to be released.

In early November, a coalition of environmental organizations sued the U.S. government for not responding to their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for more information on Zinke's review. The government is legally required to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days; some organizations have been waiting months for a response.

Monument opponents cheered Zinke's recommendations and Trump's impending Utah visit; the pro-monument side decried them. Prominent environmental organizations, the tribes of the Bears Ears Coalition, and the Native American Rights Fund, among others, vowed to sue should the recommendations become reality.

So, here we are: in limbo, one lawsuit underway, who knows how many more in the wings.

Q: Hey, thanks! I think I get it. How can I stay up to date on the latest and greatest?

A: Glad you asked. Sign up for our newsletter here. We promise not to share your email address or sell your soul to anyone. 

Q: Where else can I find good coverage of the Bears Ears saga?

A: Another good question. While just about every reputable national news outlet has covered this story to some degree, we urge you to follow these publications and reporters:

  • High Country News, a biweekly print publication and always-on website, provides comprehensive coverage of news and issues "for people who care about the West." While several High Country News reporters have covered Bears Ears, Jonathan Thompson's work stands out. He has penned beautifully written, impressively comprehensive and refreshingly nuanced stories about the people and politics behind the flashy headlines. Read his Bears Ears coverage here.

  • The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah's paper of record, has been covering Bears Ears for years. You could call Brian Maffly a Bears Ears beat reporter, though he covers the much broader topics of public lands and the environment. With some key assists from fellow reporter Thomas Burr, Maffly has doggedly covered every facet of this story. Check out his reporting here

  • Judy Fayhs of KUER, a Salt Lake City-based NPR affiliate, has given voice to the key individuals in the Bears Ears debate and presented both sides of the story in a sensitive manner. Her audio reporting is uniquely powerful, capturing the voices and emotions of sources as no print publication can. Take a listen here. 

  • Owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormon Church), the Deseret News deserves kudos for its dedication to the Bears Ears story. Environment reporter Amy Joi O'Donohue has been Deseret News's go-to reporter on Bears Ears, and holds the distinction of being the only reporter to tour Bears Ears with Secretary Zinke, and on horseback to boot. Click here for a sampling of her Bears Ears stories.

  • On the national front, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post has done a commendable job of following the Bears Ears story from afar while making occasional on-the-ground trips to speak with sources in person. Read her dispatches from DC and from San Juan County here.

Check back here for updates and analysis of the latest developments in an ongoing story.

Thanks for reading!

Rebecca and Steve