Bears Ears in Crosshairs as Zinke Tours

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke toured Bears Ears National Monument, pondered the best way to preserve it for tribes while exploiting extraction potential.

As the entourage of Utah lawmakers and U.S. Department of Interior officials drove out of Butler Wash in the Bears Ears National Monument, area resident Leonard Lee, a former Navajo Nation delegate and chapter house president, shook his head slightly.

Lee, one of the originators of the proposal to make Bears Ears a monument, spoke about the seven years of gathering documentation, meeting with local residents and elected representatives, and strategizing to gather support from other tribes to garner proposal backing across the nation.

“It was the first time in history that Native Americans were heard,” said Lee, standing in front of a group of tribal members, grassroots organizers and environmentalists who had celebrated President Barack Obama’s proclamation designating 1.35 million acres in Southeast Utah as a national monument earlier this year but were now fighting to save it under a new administration that favors energy development over conservationism.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Lee said.


U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will issue his recommendation on June 10 as to whether to repeal the monument designation or reduce the acreage. He is following a presidential executive order to review designations or expansions of 100,000 acres or more created under the Antiquities Act since 1996. Included in his review, due in 120 days, are 21 other monuments and five ocean preserves. The public comment period opens on May 12, and comments can be submitted online at

“It is public land. It was public land before the monument. It will be public land after the monument,” said Zinke on his first day of a May 7–10 tour of Bears Ears led by Utah’s Republican congressional, state and local lawmakers and business owners. He agreed that the area should be preserved but wasn’t sure whether a monument was the right designation.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke tours Bears Ears National Monument in May 2017.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tours Butler Wash in the Bears Ears National Monument with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and mostly Republican congressional, state and local lawmakers, and area business owners.

“What vehicle of public land is appropriate to preserve the cultural identity to make sure that the tribes have a voice, to make sure you protect their traditions of hunting and fishing and public access?” Zinke said. “Already you have wilderness inside and a monument inside, you have BLM, and you have grazing. How best do we look at the future of what it should be?”

For the coalition of five tribes who had the first-ever tribal monument request approved by a President, the future would exclude excessive mineral and oil development, and come with assurances that the new administration would adhere to the government-to-government sovereign relationship written as law. Many felt slighted after Zinke, who was at the borders of several reservations during his tour, only met with tribes for an hour behind closed doors.

“We’re trying to have our ancestral lands and our burial grounds protected,” said monument tribal adviser board member James Adakai, a president of the Navajo Oljato Chapter in Utah, standing outside the Blanding airport awaiting Zinke’s arrival. “Our sacred sites are being desecrated, and our artifacts are being looted.”

Several tribes believe the best way to protect Bears Ears is by keeping its designation as a national monument.

Several tribes believe the best way to protect Bears Ears is by keeping its designation as a national monument.

The Navajo Nation’s first leader, Chief Pete Manuelito, had been born in this region, he said.

“His umbilical cord was buried in Bears Ears—that’s why we have a bond with the Earth,” Adakai said. The Mormons, he added, “came 130 years ago, but we’ve been here thousands of years. Our hogans and sweat lodges are still up there, so there’s evidence we’ve always existed.”

Since Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument in December, Utah lawmakers, local residents and Native Americans have disagreed over the use of these public lands. Some of the anger stems from a similar designation, which lawmakers and area residents said was also created without their input, the 1.9 million–acre Grand Staircase-Escalante proclaimed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. More than 60 percent of Utah is public land.

Opponents of Bears Ears' designation as a national monument sported cowboy hats saying, "Make San Juan County Utah Great Again."

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican rancher, says that local residents weren't given adequate time for input on the monument designation with former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell during her visit to the region in 2016.

“We are an extractive county, we depend a lot on the extractive industry to survive in this county, and most of the extraction comes off the federal property,” said rancher and San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who passed around cowboy hats inscribed with, “Make San Juan County Great Again” before Zinke arrived. “The monument also affects our school system.”

Within the monument designation, which covers 25 percent of San Juan County, existing oil, gas and mining operations wouldn’t be affected. But no new leases would be issued, and exploratory activity is now prohibited. The county is home to the nation’s only operating uranium mill, which has the potential to employ 100 people. Last year the mill petitioned the BLM to increase ore production to 500,000 tons over 20 years.

Within the region exist deposits of copper, oil, gas and vanadium, which is used in steel. Just last year, Texas energy developer EOG Resources filed an application for exploratory drilling within the monument boundaries in Bluff, the southern end of the designated area, where much of the land is already leased for energy development. Zinke supports energy development on public lands.

“It’s all about control,” said Mark Maryboy, a member of the grassroots Utah Diné Bikéyah, which initiated Bears Ears. He was referring to the anti-monument movement led by Utah lawmakers, in contrast to the Native American proposal that went directly to Obama when Native leaders split off, feeling that tribal voices were not being heard when they tried to work with the Utah representatives.

While the land is ancestral to Utes and Navajos, Mormon settlers came to the area in the late 1880s in growing numbers, arriving in what was then dubbed Utah Territory, pushing tribes onto reservations. About 50 percent of San Juan County is Native American, yet just nine percent of business owners are Indian, according to the U.S. Census. It is also one of the poorest counties in the state.

Maryboy, a former county commissioner and Navajo Nation delegate representing the Aneth Chapter in Utah, said that though Navajos have had some gains over the years, it is lawsuits that have set them on equal footing for education, roads and voting rights. One lawsuit filed against the county’s closing of polling places, a move that forced voters to drive long distances and submit mail-in ballots, is in settlement talks.

Not all tribal members are convinced, however, that a monument will help provide protections, including access to Bears Ears. In a letter published in the San Juan Record, Darren Parry, Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation vice chairman, called it a “brilliant move” by conservation groups to involve tribes after previous proposals had failed.

Some urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to undo President Barack Obama's designation of Bears Ears as a national monument.

#RecindBearsEars and #NoMonument stickers displayed in Blanding, Utah, a small town of 3,500 on the east entrance of Bears Ears National Monument.

“For President Obama to support a national monument, the local tribes needed to be involved,” Parry wrote, stating that the designation is not in the best interest of the Shoshone, whose ancestral land includes Utah. “It has been increasingly difficult to continue to support Bears Ears because all sides, interests and views are not being represented or heard…. This not a good deal for tribes.”

Minutes of a 2014 Conservation Lands Foundation meeting, posted on the website of Stewards of San Juan County—an organization created by Navajos and Utes opposed to the designation—show a discussion on whether to involve tribes. The minutes indicate a move to gain support from multiple tribes for a Cedar Mesa conservation area or national monument, a cluster of canyons with petroglyphs and ruins on the southern end of the Bears Ears monument region.

Some of the numerous petroglyphs throughout Bears Ears National Monument, under review after an executive order by President Donald Trump.

An archeological site in Bears Ears showing some of the numerous petroglyphs throughout the monument, under review after an executive order by President Donald Trump.

Actor and foundation board chairman Edward Norton asked “if we were ‘hitching our success to the Navajo,’ and if so, what happens if we separate from them or disagree with them?” according to the minutes. “Without the support of the Navajo Nation, the White House probably would not act; currently we are relying on the success of our Navajo partners.”

Increased support from other tribes should be “helpful in empowering the White House to act,” the minutes recorded. “What would the monument be called? The local campaign has agreed to the name ‘Bears Ears’ to move away from a Navajo name. The Bears Ears are a prominent geographic feature on the landscape and also are a sacred site to Navajo people and other tribes.”

Such assertions have resonated poorly with some American Indians.

“It made [my mom] realize how Native Americans are being used,” said Ryan Benally, son of Navajo Democratic County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who helped create Stewards of San Juan County. Rebecca Benally, the only Native American to tour with Zinke (at least on the first day), has been a strong vocal monument opponent. “She took offense to that, and she has never wavered from that.”

He noted that while Native and environmental interests may dovetail, they are not identical.

“A lot of environmental organizations are in one type of ideology, and there’s no compromise in other ideologies, and that’s the same mind-set they bring to us,” said Ryan Benally, adding that rights, such as tribal access to monuments, could change after a management plan is developed. He also pointed out that tribal representatives serve as advisers, not co-managers, of Bears Ears.

Adakai dismissed the notion that environmental or conservation groups have orchestrated this movement, calling such allegations baseless and false.

“Different groups with different values have come together to defend the monument in one unified vision,” he said.

“It’s not an issue of who’s right or wrong,” Ryan Benally said. “We’ve maintained the land reasonably well without the need of a national monument. As Native Americans, maintaining that sense of independence is simply who we are as a people.”