President Trump: Make Bears Ears your legacy
Troy A. Eid
Dear President Trump:
You have reportedly never visited the Bears Ears region in Southeastern Utah: Not the 1.3 million-acre national monument your predecessor set aside in 2016, nor today’s slimmed-down version, which is 85 percent smaller than President Obama’s.
I tried to get your attention about this a few years ago but, as explained below, fell short. With help from Indian Country Today, I’m trying again.
Mr. President, go to Bears Ears.
You won’t be disappointed. That visit may change your life, your policies toward an area that’s akin to an outdoor Saint Peter’s Basilica, and your attitude toward Native people whose lives are as much a part of Bears Ears as the place itself, and whose resilient faith is a national treasure for all Americans.
You may think I’m a crank, but that would still make me your crank, Mr. President. I not only voted for you but joined your Presidential Transition Team in summer 2016 – before many others thought you’d be elected – at the invitation of our mutual friend, then-Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. By then Native American tribes with ties to Bears Ears were already working with the Obama Administration to protect the area as provided by the Antiquities Act of 1906, the law championed by President Theodore Roosevelt permitting presidents to protect places of cultural and historical significance as national monuments.
That summer and fall, our team developed recommendations for you on consulting with tribes on a government-to-government basis, as federal law requires. I advised respecting President Obama’s long-anticipated designation of Bears Ears as a national monument by President Obama based on my many years working with and representing tribes, including the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. To bring it all to life, my recommendations included photos of Bears Ears and neighboring areas taken while backpacking and trail-running there.
I kept at it after you were elected. Yet just days after your victory, your Transition Team leaders no longer responded to calls and emails from the rest of your advisory group. Chris Christie’s new memoir, Let Me Finish, confirms what we were whispering by Thanksgiving 2016: That the Transition Team’s entire work-product – including the sections I and others had prepared on Native American issues and potential senior executive branch appointments – had been thrown away unread. That did you and our country a real disservice. After all, Congress’ stated intention in enacting the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, and amending it several times since, was to help new Presidents receive thoughtful, comprehensive policy advice when they assumed power.
When outgoing President Obama finally issued his executive order in late December 2016, he declined to set aside roughly 550,000 additional acres that tribes had favored for national monument status. This was in response to objections raised by non-Indians, including those favoring mineral development, and was personally disappointing to me. Many places beyond the iconic Bears Ears rock formation, such as the canyons beneath Cedar Mesa in the Grand Gulch basin, are among the most sensitive archaeological places on earth. When I first began exploring them back in high school, arrowheads, stone scrapers, pottery shards, turkey bones and intact ears of corn littered the floors of cliff dwellings that looked and felt as if their residents still planned to return. Intact pots and jars could still be spotted if you knew just where to look. Nearly all those same places have been picked clean in recent years along with so many other irreplaceable treasures elsewhere in the Four Corners.
An upside to Obama’s compromise, if it can be called that, was that it reduced pressure on Bears Ears National Monument opponents such as U.S. Senator Mike Lee – a friend since our law school days and leader of integrity – to revisit the issue. In other words, Obama took the political heat; fights over the places excluded by his executive order could be postponed until passions cooled.
I remained cautiously optimistic – at least until former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the area in May 2017. Zinke did not consult with tribal leaders, meaningfully or otherwise. Nor did the Secretary visit any places or sites that you, citing Zinke’s review, later removed from President Obama’s monument designation that December.
In signing your order reducing the Bears Ears National Monument to 200,000 non-contiguous acres, you explained that “all my friends in Utah” supported it. That isn’t the same, of course, as saying the federal government, including Zinke and his staff, had consulted meaningfully with tribal nations prior to you signing your order. There’s also a legal question whether one President can shrink national monuments created by prior Presidents under the Antiquities Act, or whether only Congress can do so by enacting appropriate legislation. A U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. is now considering these matters but not yet ruled. Lengthy appeals can be expected.
In the meantime, an immediate and righteous alternative to continued litigation stubbornly persists: Mr. President, visit Bears Ears as soon as you can and consult personally with the tribal governments and people affected by your decisions. We’re your friends too.
I don’t use the term “friends” lightly, but with the conviction that any President of the United States, you included, could not help but come to respect the wisdom, tenacity, and courage of those Native people who practice their faith in the Bears Ears. I have every confidence that the depth and strength of their conviction, and the sheer power of the place, will turn you into a believer. All you must do is get out of that Swamp of Washington, DC for a while, take your family along so you can experience the trip together, and head west toward those two towering stone ears peaking up at you from over the horizon.
We all need inspiration, Mr. President, and there are no more self-reliant and determined people anywhere in our great country than the families defending the Bears Ears region. The mystery of the place is written on and in their hearts and it shows.
I’m speaking of people such as Willie Grayeyes, an elected County Commissioner in San Juan County, Utah, where Bears Ears is located. In 2005, when Grayeyes was serving as an elected Navajo Nation Council delegate, Albert Hale – the Nation’s former President – and I joined him and other delegates on a horseback trip. By that time, Willie had already been riding for seven straight days south toward Window Rock, Arizona – after breaking his leg. He found a board to use as a splint, tied his leg to it with bandanas, and kept on riding.
Mr. President, it doesn’t take much to imagine Willie Grayeyes and other Native elders getting your attention and winning your respect. You have often spoken strongly in defense of your Christian faith, which is greatly appreciated. Like Saint Paul’s Basilica or the Sistine Chapel, no other place in this great country quite compares to the Bears Ears region. Being Lutheran, I cannot help but think of it in Lutheran terms: At Bears Ears, you get the deep and abiding sense, amid that vast outdoor cathedral of stone and light and shadows, that nothing stands between you and the Creator. It is you and your faith and nothing else really matters. Nor would you even think about cordoning off bits and pieces of that outdoor church and abandoning the rest.
Mr. President, I write with the utmost respect for you and your office. You were given very bad advice in shrinking a national monument, or at least doing it the way some of your advisors did, without first consulting with tribal leaders and then deciding for yourself what to do. You deserved better and so did those tribes and their citizens, along with all the rest of us. But it’s not too late.
President Trump, pause the litigation. Go to Bears Ears. Make it your legacy.
A former United States Attorney appointed by President George W. Bush, Troy A. Eid (email@example.com) practices law in Denver and is President of the Navajo Nation Bar Association.