For 80 years, politicians have been all talk but no action when it comes to Bears Ears

This Saturday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will travel to Utah to hold a public meeting on the proposal to protect 1.9 million acres of land in a new Bears Ears National Monument. Faced with ongoing looting, grave robbing, and other threats to the estimated 100,000 cultural sites in the region, five Native American tribes have asked President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to give the Bears Ears area the recognition and protection that are long overdue.

Thanks to this unprecedented proposal, the latest effort to protect Bears Ears may finally succeed after eight decades of failed attempts.

The first major proposal to protect Bears Ears dates all the way back to the 1930s, when Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes proposed a 4-million acre “Escalante National Monument” across Southern Utah:

Utah State Archives

While President Franklin Roosevelt did protect dozens of culturally and ecologically significant sites with the Antiquities Act, he did not use his authority at the time to protect this area. Secretary Ickes pushed Congress to designate a National Recreation Area instead. That proposal never made it out of committee — the first of many slights against these ancestral tribal lands.

Over the next several decades, however, much of the other land identified for a monument in 1936 did end up with permanent protection:

  • In 1937, Roosevelt protected a small portion of Capitol Reef as a national monument.
  • In 1961, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall began a campaign to create a national park to the east of Capitol Reef. President Lyndon Johnson signed the law establishing Canyonlands National Park in 1964.
  • Four years later, in the final days of Johnson’s presidency, Secretary Udall pushed the President to expand Capitol Reef using the Antiquities Act; Johnson agreed, protecting an additional 215,000 acres.
  • Over the next several years, Congress worked to turn Udall’s vision for Capitol Reef into a national park; President Richard Nixon signed the law establishing the park in 1971.

To the south, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established in 1972, protecting and preserving 1.2 million acres along the Colorado River.

And in 1996, President Clinton designated Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument — a decision which was controversial at the time. But now, 20 years later, only a small minority of Utahns say the monument designation was a bad thing for the state. Economic studies have found steady employment and income growth in the region since the designation, and the Interior Department continues to partner with surrounding communities to boost tourism and jobs.

Throughout the decades, however, the Bears Ears area has remained unprotected. You can see how the tribal proposal for a Bears Ears monument fills in the gaps of the original proposal from Secretary Ickes — connecting Canyonlands to the north, Glen Canyon to the west, and the Navajo Nation to the south:

Among the people of Utah and the state’s congressional delegation, there’s virtually no disagreement about whether the Bears Ears region needs additional protection — the only debate today is over the specifics of how to protect it. A large majority of Utah voters support a monument designation. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch acknowledges:

“All of us want to ensure that Bears Ears is protected not just for today’s Utahns, but also for generations to come. Where we differ is how best to accomplish this goal.”
Rep. Rob Bishop / Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0

That brings us to the crux of the problem: Utah Congressman Rob Bishop has been promising his “Public Lands Initiative” since 2013, but he has yet to formally introduce a bill. A new draft of the PLI is due any day now, but in an election year, with only 36 days remaining on the congressional calendar, it appears Rep. Bishop has chosen to run out the clock on his long-awaited “grand bargain.” The chances of any major legislation passing before the election are slim to none.

Two years ago, the Center for Western Priorities highlighted “languishing lands” in need of protection while conservation efforts stall in Congress. These areas share three common principles: legislative plans to protect an area with unique natural, cultural, recreational resources; broad local support for land protections; and congressional champions for conservation. Bears Ears is a textbook example of all three — it’s been languishing since 1936.

As President Obama has said in the past, “I want to work with anyone in Congress who is ready to get to work and shares those goals, but recently they haven’t gotten the job done.”

With the Interior Secretary’s visit this weekend, President Obama will get the opportunity to hear from the people of Utah and the West about why Bears Ears is so deserving of protection. Since Congress is once again neglecting Bears Ears, as it has for the last 80 years, we hope the President will recognize the opportunity in front of him — it’s eight decades overdue.

© Matt Miller
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