Battle Lines Form as Trump Sets Sights on Bears Ears

Supporters of sacred Bears Ears National Monument prepare to battle President Trump administration over the reversal of Obama's designation.

As President Donald Trump’s administration takes shape, many of those who celebrated the designation of Bears Ears National Monument earlier this month are full of trepidation over what he might do, even as they begin choosing members of a commission to oversee the monument.

More than 400 people on January 7 celebrated President Barack Obama’s preservation of 1.35 million acres surrounding a pair of buttes that give the eponymous monument its name.

“It’s a great day to celebrate,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told supporters and tribal leaders gathered at the Monument Valley Welcome Center in Utah to commemorate designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. “This is what we all did. This is what working together is all about. We are a powerful voice.”


“Your strength becomes our strength,” said Alfred Lomaquahu, Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, according to a statement from Utah Diné Bikéyah (Navajo for “people’s sacred lands”), the grassroots coalition that led the effort. “Your blessings become our blessings. We’re doing this for all the people who realize this land holds our being. It holds who we are.”

They will need that strength, if recent developments are any indication.

“The governor of Utah, the state legislature, the U.S. congressmen and senators of Utah have all expressed their plans to undo the monument, and almost on a daily basis we hear the state leadership talking about the undoing on TV and the evening news,” Mark Maryboy, a grandchild of Navajo Chief Manuelito who grew up hearing stories about how his family had settled in the Bears Ears region, told Indian Country Media Network. “We need to prepare and brace ourselves to lobby the administration over the next four years, partner with various environmental partners, and call on all the tribes across the U.S. to help us maintain this monument.”

Bears Ears National Monument celebration Jan 7

Singers at a January 7 celebration for Bears Ears National Monument.

This became especially apparent on January 27, when Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in an interview with KSL Radio that he had had a “lengthy discussion” with President Donald Trump about undoing the move.

In addition, Hatch said, U.S. Interior Secretary nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke, (R-Montana), plans to make Bears Ears a priority, though he has yet to be confirmed.

“Ryan Zinke called on me, and committed to me not only that he would work with us on Bears Ears, but that his first trip after confirmation would be to Utah to get right to work with us on addressing this travesty,” Hatch said in an interview excerpt that he released as a press statement. “As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke will play a key role in this fight but in the end, changes to a national monument have to come from the President himself. That’s why I raised it with the President directly.”

Tribes pushing for preservation of Bears Ears are bracing for a challenge to the monument designation. If President Donald Trump’s first week in office was any indication of what is to come after signing executive orders in support of the Dakota Access (DAPL) and the Keystone XL oil pipelines, many fear that he could target Bears Ears and other monuments.


Walter Phelps, Navajo Nation delegate and member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which submitted the initial proposal to Obama asking for the monument designation, said he did not want to speculate. Once the new interior secretary is confirmed, he said, there would be an education process.

“We will make them aware of our interest,” Phelps said.

Zinke is noted for supporting Montana tribes. But he also said during a Senate confirmation hearing that he would defer to states for managing monuments. Zinke is also a proponent of oil and gas development, including Keystone XL. His Senate approval has been placed on hold.

Meanwhile the Navajo Nation, along with the Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and the Zuni tribes are designing their picks for the Bears Ears Commission that will provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans as called for in Obama’s proclamation.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the land under the Department of the Interior, has also started the process to inform local residents, county, state, environmental groups and other stakeholders that it will host the first public open house in late February. The BLM is also gathering names for the additional monument advisory committee made up of stakeholders to be formed, and along with the U.S. Forest Service, plans to develop additional website content for the national monument, including social media posts and more detailed mapping.

“As new steps and stages develop, the agencies will provide additional information to the public,” according to a Utah BLM news release.

Bears Ears Celebration

It was a packed house on hand to celebrate the designation of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on January 7, 2017.

Utah’s congressional and state representatives are also organizing to repeal the proclamation. In a U.S. House floor speech earlier this month, Republican Senator Mike Lee said he spoke with the Trump team before the President was sworn into office to rescind Obama’s order and co-sponsored a bill, the Improved National Monument Designation Process Act, that would require all future presidents to obtain congressional and state approval before designating a national monument.

Saying that the Navajo Tribe had been exploited by environmental and recreational groups, Lee said some Utah Navajos opposed the monument and fear the creation of another layer of government.

“Take away [Navajo’s] access to their land—restrict their stewardship over the Earth’s bounty, for the sake of increasing the access of wealthy urbanites who use the outdoors for recreation—and it won’t be long before their culture begins to fade away,” Lee said, echoing their beliefs. In truth, the national monument designation helps protect the region for ceremonial purposes, and shelters it from overuse. It does not reduce Natives’ access to the land.


While both sides organize for a battle, proponents have received $1.5 million from philanthropic groups to establish the Bears Ears Community Engagement Fund. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Wyss Foundation, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Wilburforce Foundation, and the Grand Canyon Trust granted funding to the new Bears Ears Commission to minimize threats stemming from looting and vandalism, support local community and tribal engagement, and promote traditional resource stewardship and use, among other support.

The importance of keeping the designation is simple, Maryboy said: “The land has provided the necessity of life for thousands of years.”