In perhaps the final major act of conservation of his administration, President Barack Obama on Wednesday designated 1.35 million acres in southeast Utah and 300,000 acres in Nevada as two new national monuments.
The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah—named for twin buttes that poke above the horizon—will protect a diverse southwestern landscape that the novelist Wallace Stegner wrote could “fill up the eye and overflow the soul.” It includes soaring red-rock formations, piñon-juniper mesas, 12,000-foot-high mountain peaks, and secluded sandstone canyons that harbor well-preserved prehistoric dwellings and rock-art panels—more than 100,000 Native American cultural and archaeological sites in all. It’s among the most significant archaeological areas in the United States.
The Gold Butte National Monument, northeast of Las Vegas, will protect ancient petroglyphs, winding canyons, mining ghost towns, sweeping vistas, and a host of desert wildlife, including endangered desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. Some of the land, which is currently managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is also grazed by cattle belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy. His refusal to remove the cattle led to an armed standoff in 2014 with BLM officials. That dispute has still not been resolved.
Bears Ears, situated to the east of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and to the south of Canyonlands National Park, is also contentious. Obama’s declaration amounts to a victory for a coalition of local Indian tribes and conservation groups—and a defeat, at least for now, for the Utah politicians, ranchers, and business groups who had vehemently opposed the monument.
“This arrogant act by a lame-duck president will not stand,” Utah Senator Mike Lee (R) said in a statement on Wednesday. “I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation.”
Tribal leaders and conservationist spent at least six years developing a grassroots proposal for the Bears Ears monument. Traveling house to hogan, they collected stories from elders about the long-standing ties that local Indian people have to the greater Bears Ears landscape, where they still hunt, gather ceremonial herbs and firewood, and commune with their ancestors.
For some of the area’s native people, the new monument is a symbol of healing and redress for past wrongs.
“What this designation means is a perpetuation of indigenous people,” explained Eric Descheenie, a Navajo former co-chair of the intertribal coalition. “Since the colonial onset we have fought to remain, to preserve who we are, our identity and purpose and the way we relate to land. You can’t talk about Native American people without talking about the land.”
The coalition, a rare alliance of Navajos, Hopis, Zunis, Utes of the Uintah Ouray, and Ute Mountain Utes, proposed that it jointly manage the land with the federal government. Bears Ears National Monument will be overseen by an unprecedented commission of leaders, one representative from each tribe, who will provide guidance and recommendations on management of the monument.
The monument designation maintains currently authorized non-harmful uses of the land, including grazing, off-road vehicle recreation, hunting, and fishing. It allows tribal access for such activities as traditional collection of plants and firewood. Finally, the monument will honor existing oil and gas and mining rights, mainly for uranium and potash. But it will prohibit new development.
Meanwhile, it will safeguard a vast and rugged wilderness of mountains, mesas, and canyons, including places so inaccessible they’ve never been grazed by livestock. Bears Ears is a paradise for hikers and climbers, mountain lions and antelope.
Monument status also promises better protection of the area’s cultural sites and antiquities, which include Basket Maker pit houses and Pueblo fortresses, historic Navajo hogans and Ute tipi rings. Archaeologists have dated most sites to at least 700 years old, but some go as far back as 12,000 B.C.
The density of sites is so high, said Josh Ewing, executive director of the group Friends of Cedar Mesa, that you “could combine all of the archaeological sites found in all Mighty 5 national parks in Utah, and there’d still be more in Bears Ears.”
For decades, those sites have been threatened by looting. In 2009, FBI and BLM agents conducted the largest Native American artifact sting operation to date in Blanding, a small town on the eastern boundary of the new monument. During the first six months of 2016, Friends of Cedar Mesa, which mounts volunteer patrols and reports damage and suspicious activity to the BLM, tracked seven major incidents of looting in the Bears Ears area. One volunteer recently came across a rock-art panel of a humanlike figure that a thief had tried to wrest from the cliff with a rock saw.
Until now, there have been only two part-time federal officers patrolling the lands that make up the new monument. If it receives Congressional appropriations at a level typical for a national monument of its type, more resources for enforcement will become available.
The 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument, which lies between Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon, is also home to significant cultural resources, such as Native American petroglyphs, historic mining sites, and pioneer-era artifacts.
Since the standoff with Bundy more than two years ago, the BLM has left parts of the land unmanaged and unpatrolled. Petroglyphs have been found riddled with bullet holes. Illegal irrigation trenches have been dug.
Parts of the region had already been designated as critical habitat for an endangered desert tortoise and several other species of threatened plants and animals. Other animals that call Gold Butte home include Gila monsters, desert bighorn sheep, and great horned owls.
Yet the ongoing damage to Gold Butte has been such that it deserved additional protection, according to Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a conservation group. It was one of a coalition of local groups that asked President Obama to designate the new monument, with support from outgoing Senator Harry Reid (D) and other state lawmakers. A recent poll found that 71 percent of Nevada residents supported creation of the monument.
Boosters hope the new monument will encourage tourism to the area. "Permanent protection will provide Gold Butte the management presence and information visitors need in order to learn how to respect this under-appreciated national treasure," the Friends of Nevada Wilderness said in a statement.
Obama designated the new monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which was passed precisely in response to rampant looting of archaeological sites in the Southwest United States. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, it grants the commander in chief sole authority to designate public land as a monument in order to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” During his two terms in office, Obama has put more acreage under protection than any previous president—more than 548 million acres, most of it in the ocean.
(Read about his expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, northwest of Hawaii, and his creation of a monument off New England.)
In Utah, opposition to monument status for Bears Ears has been fierce. Some 64 percent of all land in Utah is already owned and managed by the federal government— the second most of any state—including more than 60 percent of the land in San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located. A majority of San Juan County ranchers, business groups, county commissioners, and even some local tribal members all came out against the proposed monument, largely on the assumption that it would restrict animal grazing and oil and gas drilling in a rural county where unemployment is double the state average.
Last winter, Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert delivered a letter to President Obama in Washington urging him not to designate a new national monument in the state. Utah’s Republican representatives in Salt Lake City and in Washington also overwhelmingly opposed Obama's acting on his own.
Instead, Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz favored a bill that would have protected 1.39 million acres—mostly the same area as the Bears Ears National Monument—while allowing further energy development elsewhere. The bill also proposed a tribal commission to help inform management of the area. It failed to pass Congress.
The fate of Bears Ears now rests with President-elect Trump and the incoming Congress. No previous president has tried to terminate a national monument, and according to legal scholars, the president appears to lack the authority needed to unilaterally do so. Congress could rescind a national monument designation, said University of Utah law professor John Ruple, but many senators and representatives might be reluctant to be seen as undoing protections for majestic landscapes.
Ruple says that Congress could simply withhold funds for the management of the monument, thereby undermining its protection. And Trump, once he becomes president, might attempt to reduce the size of the monument or eliminate some protections—a move that “would almost certainly invite litigation,” Ruple said.
Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado, traces the current hostility to new monument designations—seen by conservatives as examples of egregious executive overreach—to the 1996 proclamation of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Wilkinson helped President Bill Clinton draft that proclamation. Studies have found that surrounding counties ultimately benefited economically from the monument, he said, mainly because of tourism.
“There’s always opposition to monuments until people realize what they’ve got,” Wilkinson said.
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Brian Clark Howard contributed reporting.