Million-dollar campaign launched to protect Bears Ears

The Citadel Ruins are the remains of Anasazi cliff dwellings in the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The Citadel is one of an estimated 100,000 sites in the monument spanning some 12,500 years. (Photo credit: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management; courtesy of Creative Commons)

Joaqlin Estus

‘Sacred land and sites of North American Indigenous people ... have been put at risk of desecration’

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

An international cultural conservation fund has put $300,000 toward a $1 million campaign to help protect and restore areas of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

The World Monuments Fund donated the money in late July, saying Bears Ears is a world-class “irreplaceable treasure,” one of a select group of architectural and cultural sites that span the history of human civilization.

“Bears Ears is the first national monument created at the request of and with input from Native American governments,” according to a Washington Post article.

The Trump administration in 2017 reversed protections tribes had long lobbied for.

Last fall, the fund added Bears Ears to its 2020 World Monuments Watch list of threatened world treasures, saying “sacred land and sites of North American Indigenous people … have been put at risk of desecration.”

The monument is named after two buttes that look like bears’ ears. The name doesn’t quite have the ring of “Notre-Dame de Paris” or Venice’s “Italian Renaissance architecture,” but the monument is now grouped with those sites, as well as Buddhist shrines in Kathmandu, Nepal, some dating from the fifth century, and teak farmhouses in Myanmar. Bears Ears is one of 25 such sites included on the World Monuments Watch list. It was selected from more than 250 nominations.

The ties between area tribes and the Bears Ears landscape are ancient. Some of the creation myths of the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe refer to Bears Ears landmarks.

The area has an estimated 100,000 archeological sites — including cliff dwellings, rock paintings, and artifacts that are sacred to many Native Americans. The archeological remains shed light on how Indigenous peoples have lived in the area for some 12,500 to 13,000 years.

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

Six tribes founded a Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015 to work on multiple fronts to “protect and promote sacred, spiritual, historical, natural, scientific and cultural resources on lands within the Bears Ears landscape.” The Coalition and other supporters successfully lobbied President Obama to create the Bears Ears National Monument in 2016.

World Monuments Fund CEO Bénédicte de Montlaur said Bears Ears and other remarkable sites “demand sustainable, community-led solutions that bring people together and fuse conservation with social change.”

The fund’s partner in the campaign is Friends of Cedar Mesa, a Utah-based nonprofit formed 10 years ago expressly to conserve Bears Ears area resources. The group’s website said the most serious threat to Bears Ears is the Trump administration’s reversal of protections set up under President Barack Obama.

“On December 4, 2017 after a public review process that showed overwhelming support for the original boundaries and protections for Bears Ears, President Trump illegally reduced the Bears Ears National Monument. His proclamation cut the size of the monument by a staggering 85 percent. By our estimate, this illegal attack removed 74 percent of known archaeology from monument protection,” the group’s website states.

The Washington Post reported the Trump administration’s reduction had the support of Utah officials and some local residents. “His rollback also followed a uranium firm’s concerted lobbying, an effort led by Andrew Wheeler, who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency.”

The Friends of Cedar Mesa say a 2019 proposed management plan would permit the installation of utility lines and access roads, use of recreational off-road vehicles, and cattle grazing. It would allow mining and drilling for oil and gas in de-designated areas.

Due to the pandemic, the state of Utah had closed recreational areas and campgrounds. It has now lifted that directive, a move the nonprofit group sees as another threat. Visitors increase the risk of looting, vandalism and desecration of burial sites. The number of annual visitors to the area previously was estimated at 450,000 people.

The Bears Ears National Monument was created by the Obama administration in 2016. The proclamation stated, “The Bears Ears area has been proposed for protection by members of Congress, Secretaries of the Interior, State and tribal leaders, and local conservationists for at least 80 years. The area contains numerous objects of historic and of scientific interest, and it provides world class outdoor recreation opportunities, including rock climbing, hunting, hiking, backpacking, canyoneering, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and horseback riding.”

The designation allowed recreational activities and honored existing valid rights and leases but removed nearly 1.4 million acres of federal lands from new mining, energy development and grazing.

The Friends of Cedar Mesa are working on projects such as signs, cattle-guard fencing, and removal of graffitti. The group has also initiated a lawsuit. They say Trump’s executive order is an attack on the Antiquities Act, which authorized the creation of Bears Ears and other monuments, including the Grand Canyon. Read more about the Friends’ actions here.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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