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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland sent her recommendation to President Joe Biden on whether to reverse the downsizing of two national monuments in Utah. President Trump in 2017 cut the Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and the Grand Escalante Staircase National Monument by half. Details on Haaland’s recommendation were not released.

Bears Ears, which is named after two distinctive buttes, is the first national monument created at the request of tribes.

It holds an estimated 100,000 sites and objects -- archeological remains that shed light on how Indigenous peoples have lived in the area for some 12,500 to 13,000 years. Sites and objects include cliff dwellings, rock paintings, and sacred artifacts.

Tribes still use the area for ceremonies and to gather plants for basket-making, medicine and food.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is concerned that without national monument protection and staffing, artifacts and sites are at higher risk of looting, vandalism, and desecration of burial sites. The coalition is made up of the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe, which all have ancient ties to sites in the monuments.

Before the pandemic, an estimated 450,000 people visited the area annually. Executive Director Pat Gonzales-Rogers of the Inter-tribal coalition believes the number of visitors has nearly doubled since then.

“That's an incredible amount of people coming on the landscape where they have a very few people from the federal side overseeing and protecting,” he said.

Gonzales-Rogers said the coalition has consistently requested restoration of the original acreage, and then a path to permanence so the monuments’ status doesn’t change from one administration to the next.

“We're profoundly optimistic,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “All of the indicators juxtaposed against the Trump administration and their lack of communication or any outreach says that they (officials in the Biden administration) have taken the thoughts and sentiments of the tribes in a very somber and serious manner.

“The quicker that we can address this, the quicker we can get into some of the issues that really require much more kind of manpower on the ground, as well as kind of oversight and management of the landscape,” Gonzales-Rogers said.

On May 23, the coalition launched a national ad campaign calling on Biden to take immediate action to restore and expand Bears Ears.

Hopi Tribe Vice Chairman and Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Clark Tenakhongva said then in a prepared statement, “My bloodline and culture comes from Bears Ears, my clan migrated through that area. If your eyes are open, the evidence is everywhere. Former President Trump wanted to diminish our connection to Bears Ears but President Biden has the power to set the record straight. We trust him to get this right.”

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition member Manuel Heart stated, “These are aboriginal ancestral lands, even before the statehood of Utah, we’ve taken care of these lands. Yet, for so many years the government’s explicit policy with the Indian Removal Act, policies that penalized speaking in our Native tongues, and the broader assimilation process all contributed to an effort to disconnect us from the land and our lifeways.

“This is the broader context where we find ourselves today,” Heart said. “But now we have a new President. And President Biden has the opportunity to begin a new chapter where we are included in the management of public lands. Acknowledging our connection to these landscapes in speeches is important but involving us in the management would be restorative justice in practice.”

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In August 2020, an international cultural conservation fund contributed $300,000 toward a $1 million campaign to help protect and restore Bears Ears areas.

The World Monuments Fund called Bears Ears a world-class “irreplaceable treasure,” one of a select group of architectural and cultural sites that span the history of human civilization. The fund lists Bears Ears as threatened, saying “sacred land and sites of North American Indigenous people … have been put at risk of desecration.”

(Related: Will Joe Biden restore 2 million acres to Bears Ears?)

(Related: Million-dollar campaign launched to protect Bears Ears)

The Interior department gave Haaland’s report to Biden on Wednesday, according to a court filing Thursday in a legal battle that began more than three years ago after Trump’s decision.

U.S. Department of Justice attorneys mentioned the report as part of a request to have until July 13 to address the judge's question about whether the legal battle has become a moot point.

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to provide any information about the report.

Haaland is the first Indigenous official to get involved in the public lands tug-of-war that has gone on for years. A string of U.S. officials has heard from advocates for expanding national monuments to protect archaeological and cultural sites, and from opponents who see such moves as federal overreach. During a trip to Utah in April to visit the monuments, Haaland said, it’s clear “we all want pretty much the same thing. We want to protect land. We want to make sure it’s there for generations to come.”

Tribes supported the creation of Bears Ears by President Barack Obama, but Republican state leaders opposed it. Grand Staircase is older but has long been a point of contention for conservative state leaders who consider both monuments U.S. government overreach.

Trump’s reductions paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that used to be off-limits, though such activity has been limited because of market dynamics.

Interior officials told Utah Gov. Spencer Cox that the report had been given to the White House but didn't provide any information about the findings, said his spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

Cox and other prominent Utah Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, have expressed concern with the review. They met with Haaland on her visit. Cox has said the state would likely sue if the monuments are enlarged without approval from Congress.

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Corrected: clarified that an estimated 450,000 people visited Bears Ears annually.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.