“We have tried to be patient and respectful as we await your decision on restoration. However, the longer action is not taken, real harm, much permanent, is occurring on this sacred landscape,” wrote Clark W. Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, and Henry Stevens Jr., a representative of the Navajo Nation.
Tribal activists and conservationists have become increasingly frustrated that Biden, who campaigned on reversing President Donald Trump’s rollbacks of protections for national monuments, has not yet used his authority to restore their original boundaries. Trump shrank Bears Ears along with another national monument in southeastern Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante.
The Washington Post reported in June that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recommended to the White House an expansion of the boundaries of the two monuments, while reimposing fishing restrictions Trump lifted in a third site, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
Presidents have wide latitude to safeguard threatened areas under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Barack Obama established Bears Ears in 2016, after a concerted lobbying push by a coalition of several tribes with historic ties to the area. Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante as a national monument 25 years ago.
Both monuments are set in a stunning desert landscape of sandstone canyons and vast mesas and are teeming with paleontological and cultural treasures, including remains of cliff dwellings, rock art and dinosaur fossils. They also have stores of coal, uranium and gas.
On his first day in office, Biden ordered the Interior Department to review the monument issue. But despite receiving Haaland’s report months ago, he has not yet announced his intentions.
The tribes that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni — consider that part of Utah sacred and have watched with dismay as looters have stolen pot shards and defaced rock art made by ancestral Puebloan Indians who lived in the area.
Tourists have flocked to these outdoor treasures, particularly amid the pandemic’s surge in outdoor recreation, parking RVs on the rims of canyons and crowding hiking trails.
“Each day that passes without national monument protection for numerous sacred sites and irreplaceable cultural resources risks desecration, looting, vandalism, and misinformed visitation to an area that contains the exact kind of antiquities that inspired the creation of the Antiquities Act,” the letter to Biden from the tribal coalition reads. “These artifacts, considered by us to be messages our ancestors meant for us to see and incorporate as lessons into our present, are literally being erased.”
The group included photos of the rock art taken in 2018 and again in 2019, after vandals had smeared mud over it.
The tribal coalition also complained that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are still operating under the Trump-era management plan for the area and not incorporating input from tribes.
“These planning activities, which include new water wells to expand opportunities for cattle grazing and an increase in permitting for motorized recreation and hardening and expansion of campgrounds, have been undertaken without us being collaboratively engaged and we do not want them to become effectively a fait accompli,” the coalition wrote.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2017, Trump broke the 1.3-million-acre monument Obama designated into two parcels and shrank the site to about 228,000 acres. The tribal coalition had initially asked Obama to designate 1.9 million acres, and leaders have said that they still want that expanse to receive protections.
On her first trip as interior secretary in April, Haaland visited both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and met with tribal leaders and Republican politicians including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah).
Republicans do not want Biden to manage the land through executive order but rather want legislation to set terms for land management at Bears Ears, which they say will be a more lasting solution to the competing demands on the land.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce, a spokeswoman for Cox, said in an email that the governor “has been consistent in voicing his strong preference for a legislative solution to monument boundaries.”
“We continue to believe this is the best long-term plan for providing stability for our valued public lands and the local communities surrounding them," she added.