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Bears Ears: What a National Monument Designation Means

Amid confusion over what activities can be conducted in Bears Ears as a national monument, a BLM fact sheet and video in Navajo shed light.
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As Bears Ears National Monument undergoes a U.S. Department of the Interior review, Native Americans buffeted by opposing views are confused over whether they can conduct ceremony, hunt, gather wood or undertake other activity in this vast area of ancestral land. Op-ed articles, videos, public meetings, and discussions among politicians, bureaucrats and area residents have fueled the uncertainty about what can or cannot be done within the boundaries of a national monument.

Though President Barack Obama’s monument proclamation calls for greater protections of sacred and cultural sites, much of the current recreational, energy extraction and tribal activity remains, according to the Montecello Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The deadline for submitting public comment for Bears Ears is before this Friday, May 28, according to the Interior Department. Members of the public can post a comment at Regulations.gov.

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Under the proclamation, tribal members still retain the right to woodcutting, as well as gathering medicinal plants and other vegetation. Grazing permits and leases are also still being administered. Hunting, fishing and camping are also still allowed, according to a BLM Visitor Information Fact Sheet. The BLM has also created a video in Navajo discussing how to apply for a permit and detailing which local areas are suitable for woodcutting.

Oil, mineral leases and mining claims also still exist as they did before the designation. Only new leases, claims or energy exploratory activities are now prohibited. And while ATV use is currently permitted, trails or roads could change with a new management plan, which requires public input, according to BLM’s fact sheet. Nevertheless, confusion persists.

“If the area becomes a national monument, we’ll be limited,” said Susie Johnson Philemon, a Utah Navajo who appears in one of several anti-monument videos produced by the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based, conservative, public policy think tank.

Such misconceptions have been fueled by propaganda insinuating that a national monument designation strips away certain rights, and by remarks by such people as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who said during a recent tour of Bears Ears by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that activities would be severely curtailed.

Part of the confusion may lie in what the federal designation means. When Obama signed the monument proclamation in December 2016, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service each managed their respective sections of the 1.35 million–acre area. This continues to be the case under the new designation. The secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior also are to “provide access by members of Indian tribes for traditional cultural and customary uses,” according to the policy.

Earlier this year the five tribes who had taken their monument proposal to Obama appointed an advisory commission following the proclamation to “provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans and on management of the monument.”

Public hearings for a new BLM resource management plan and Bears Ears have been placed on hold until Interior completes its review, according to the agency. But even Zinke emphasized that the land belongs to the people, no matter what its designation.

“It is public land,” said Zinke, who will make a recommendation to President Donald Trump by June 10 on whether to rescind the monument, scale it back or leave it as is. “It was public land before the monument, it will be public land after the monument.”