Richard Moe was president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 1993 to 2010. He is a member of the board of the Conservation Lands Foundation.
SANTA FE, N.M.
A desert landscape not far from here called Bears Ears could be the most historically significant site in the United States that most Americans have never heard of. Spread out over 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah are tens of thousands of cliff dwellings, ceremonial “kivas,” pit houses, granaries, towers and rock art panels, along with countless pots and other artifacts of the first Americans going back more than 10,000 years.
Bears Ears represents the most important and intact array of unprotected cultural resources on federal land. And those resources are increasingly at risk — from looting, vandalism, off-road vehicles, grave robbing and the occasional carelessness of visitors. Assigned to patrol and protect this huge area are two full-time rangers.
Named for two buttes rising dramatically from the desert landscape, Bears Ears is especially important to the Indian tribes and pueblos of the Southwest that trace their ancestry to the area and the ancient sites it contains. Twenty-six tribes support protecting lands within Bears Ears, and some of them — led by the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Utes, the Zuni Pueblo, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Tribe of Unitah and Ouray — have formed an unprecedented Inter-Tribal Coalition to advocate the permanent protection of their ancient and sacred homeland.
The coalition emphasizes its deep spiritual connection with Bears Ears, “where tribal leaders and medicine people go to conduct ceremonies, collect herbs for medicinal purposes, and practice healing rituals stemming from time immemorial. . . . Our relationship and visits to Bears Ears are essential for healing, and ruining the integrity of those lands forever compromises our ability to heal.”
There is virtually unanimous agreement on the unique cultural significance of Bears Ears — there is nothing else in the country even approaching it — yet there is no agreement on the need to protect it. Despite active local support for protection among both Indians and non-Indians, Utah’s congressional delegation has persistently but so far unsuccessfully tried to deny President Obama the right to make Bears Ears a national monument under the Antiquities Act, which was signed into law and used by President Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago for exactly this purpose.
Republican Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both of whom hold key committee chairmanships, have been telling interested constituents for three years that they have been drafting legislation to protect the area, but they failed to introduce legislation containing specific boundaries and provisions. It became increasingly clear to those following the so-called negotiations that they aimed to run out the clock on the Obama administration’s ability to use the Antiquities Act to create a national monument.
Apparently convinced that such an action was under serious consideration, however, Bishop and Chaffetz finally introduced their bill last week, just two days before Interior Secretary Sally Jewell held a public hearing on Bears Ears in Bluff, Utah, that was attended by some 2,000 people, a clear majority of whom supported a monument, according to officials from the Conservation Lands Foundation. To no one’s surprise, several provisions of the bill would eviscerate any serious concept of protection. Among them:
●The bill would split Bears Ears in two, leaving many important cultural areas unprotected, and give the tribes too little voice in managing sites sacred to their heritage.
●The bill would mandate that grazing be permitted in fragile archeological areas and give land managers no discretion to reduce it even when resources were being damaged.
●The “National Conservation Areas” in the bill include huge loopholes that confuse the meaning of “conservation” and even prevent managers from prohibiting some uses that have been historically damaging to cultural resources.
●With the obvious intention of weakening standards for wilderness areas, the bill includes provisions in direct conflict with the federal Wilderness Act that could affect areas besides Bears Ears.
If these and other provisions remain in the bill, it should be clear to all that the Utah congressional delegation has no intention of supporting serious legislation to protect the most significant and at-risk cultural landscape in the United States. This is precisely the kind of situation that Congress had in mind when it gave the president the authority to create national monuments, and why nearly every president of both parties has used the act, particularly when Congress failed in its duty to act responsibly on its own. Obama has previously showed vision and courage in using this authority, and creating a Bears Ears National Monument would be very much in that tradition and fully justified by the facts.