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Sacred Bears Ears and Gold Butte Designated as National Monuments

Tribal leaders applaud President Barack Obama's designation of sacred sites Bears Ears and Gold Butte as national monuments.
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Tribes and environmental advocates alike applauded President Barack Obama’s designation of the sacred Bears Ears region in Utah, plus Gold Butte in Nevada as national monuments.

The Bears Ears designation is for 1.35 million acres of federal land, less than the 1.9 million acres originally requested by a consortium of tribes. The move would conserve all current uses of the lands, including recreational use as well as existing rights for oil, gas and mining operations, military training operations and utility corridors, the U.S. Department of the Interior said in a statement. Although about even with the 1.39 million acres covered in H.R. 5780 in the House of Representatives, a bill whose authors wanted to leave more of the land open to potential industrial development, Obama's designation has slightly different boundaries.

Leaders of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah & Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni governments, applauded what they called a visionary and courageous move on the part of Obama to invoke the Antiquities Act to protect the federal lands comprising the Bears Ears region. The sacred site is named for a pair of twin buttes that form the centerpiece of a “cultural landscape rich in antiquities, with hundreds of thousands of archaeological and cultural sites that are sacred to dozens of tribes,” the coalition said in a statement.

“Bears Ears has been home to Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni for countless generations,” the coalition said. “Our ancestors lived, hunted, gathered, prayed, and built civilizations here, and it remains vital today as a place of subsistence and spirituality. Our oral traditions speak of this area, and of certain spiritual resources found only there. The protection of the Bears Ears cultural landscape is powerful medicine for healing—of the land, of plants and animals, and for all people. The Bears Ears National Monument will also ensure continued access to tribal ceremonies, firewood and herb collection, hunting, grazing and outdoor recreation.”

In Nevada, the newly designated Gold Butte National Monument, traditional homeland of the southern Paiute, is made up of nearly 300,000 acres of mountains, as well as forests of Joshua trees and Mojave yucca, plus ponderosa pine, white fir, pinyon and juniper. Like Bears Ears, it is full of ancient petroglyphs and archaeological sites. Though already designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) by the Bureau of Land Management to protect critical habitat for desert tortoise and 77 plant and animal species, it was not enforceable protection—until now. The region hugs the Arizona border east of Lake Meade in southeastern Nevada.

Gold Butte rock formation

Rock formations in the newly designated, 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument, located about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas. A national monument status protects this scenic and ecologically fragile area near where rancher Cliven Bundy led in an armed standoff with government agents in 2014. It includes rock art, artifacts, rare fossils and recently discovered tracks.

In a nine-page proclamation that included an overview of Bears Ears’ 13,000-year history as a sacred site to “hundreds of generations” of Indigenous Peoples, and describing its rich wildlife habitat, Obama established a Bears Ears Commission to “provide guidance and recommendations on the development and implementation of management plans and on management of the monument.”

One elected officer each from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray and Zuni Tribe, as designated by the officers' respective tribes, would serve on it, making Indigenous Peoples active partners with the federal government.

“The rock art, ancient dwellings, and ceremonial sites concealed within these breathtaking landscapes help tell the story of people who have stewarded these lands for hundreds of generations,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a joint statement praising the move issued by her agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Today’s action builds on an extraordinary effort from tribes, local communities, and members of Congress to ensure that these treasures are protected for generations to come, so that tribes may continue to use and care for these lands, and all may have an opportunity to enjoy their beauty and learn from their rich cultural history.”

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Tribal reaction, too, was immediate.

“President Obama has been consistent in his commitment to work with Tribal governments, and this historic designation builds on his legacy,” said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye in the DOI/USDA statement. “We are particularly pleased that the designation affirms tribal sovereignty and provides a collaborative role for Tribes to work with the federal government in maintaining the land. Because Tribes will help manage this land, it reaffirms President Obama’s fundamental commitment to human rights and equity in voice. Furthermore, while the land will be protected, our local Utah-based tribal members will continue to have access to the land for gathering ceremonial herbs. The land has always been a place of sacredness and fortitude for our people. Now it will be preserved for all future generations."

“We are grateful for President Obama’s brave action today,” said David Filfred, Navajo Nation Council Delegate representing Aneth, Teec Nos Pos, Red Mesa and Mexican Water Chapters in Utah, in a statement from the Tribal Coalition. “For the first time in history, a president has used the Antiquities Act to honor the request of Tribal Nations to protect our sacred sites. In doing so, he has given the opportunity for all Americans to come together and heal.”

“As a coalition of five sovereign Native American Tribes in the region, we are confident that today’s announcement of collaborative management will protect a cultural landscape that we have known since time immemorial,” said Alfred Lomahquahu, Vice Chairman of Hopi Tribe and Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “Our connection with this land is deeply tied to our identities, traditional knowledge, histories, and cultures. We look forward to working with the current and future administrations to fully and properly administer these lands for all to enjoy.”

“Today’s announcement honors and elevates the voices of the Tribes,” said Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni councilman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair. “Thirty sovereign Tribal Nations passed resolutions in support of monument protection at Bears Ears, as did the National Congress of American Indians. Support for this monument has been overwhelming in Indian Country, and we thank President Obama for hearing our call for permanent protection of this living cultural landscape.”

Tribal leaders were especially appreciative of the aspect of “strong, federal-tribal collaborative management” that will be the cornerstone of the measure.

“Under this unprecedented system, federal and tribal resource managers will work closely together to manage a large unit of federal land,” the coalition said.

The Grand Canyon Trust, embroiled in similar issues, lauded this feature, as well as the origination of the idea.

“This announcement is truly historic,” the Grand Canyon Trust said in a statement. “It marks the first successful Native American-driven campaign, led by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, to bring added protection to already public lands and Native American cultural heritage under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The true promise of this national monument lies in the enduring legacy offered by the tribes – the opportunity to pair Native American traditional knowledge with western science to manage Bears Ears National Monument lands respectfully.”