Bear’s Ears: Underneath the Controversy


Southern New Mexico is now chilly at night and in the mornings. I add a wool blanket to the nighttime layers, but somehow Tango manages to pull it over to his side and make a little nest for himself. I open up a lightweight sleeping bag and that ends up in his corner as well. This morning, shivering in the sea of wool and high tech fabric, I peek out the window and see sand blowing across the dunes at White Sands National Monument. I am on a side trip in search of a good view of the full “super” moon. Clouds may interfere.

In the meantime, as I tour yet another national monument, my mind wanders back to the blog series I started about Bear’s Ears National Monument a few weeks back.  Bear’s Ears is in the news again, with an announcement possibly today about reducing it’s size. The president said this morning that he is going to Utah to make a great step for states rights. That is what most people expected because the controversy has always been grounded in “states rights”.

Almost no one is against protecting Bear’s Ears. All of the stakeholders (Native American tribes, people of Utah, Utah representatives, ranchers/farmers, tourist industry) agreed that the Bear’s Ears area should be protected. Nearby Native Americans wanted their cultural history protected. Utah’s tourism industry wanted their share of dollars, and Utah’s citizens wanted protected lands for hunting and other outdoor recreation. Utah legislators wanted to set aside some land, but under their control, so they could receive tax revenue from the mining and other industries with their eyes on the land.  Several Utah House Republicans invested three years in a bill meant to protect the Bears Ears area. That bill, the Utah Public Lands Initiative, would have given the state control of the land and also opened up thousands of acres nearby to mining or development. It did not pass, and so after years of fighting and increased vandalism of the priceless artifacts, the Obama administration put the highest priority on the cultural significance and carved out a huge monument. The detractors made it sound like the whole process was based on a whim, without proper research and stakeholder input. Sour grapes from people who could not find their own way to protect Bear’s Ears priceless treasures.

Now we have an administration that cares more about divesting our public lands to states and the profit potential for the extravtive industry. Today, it will attempt to accomplish that by rolling back the size of Bear’s Ears National Monumnet, which is a whopping 1.7 million acres. One of the justifications we will likely the Antiquities Act itself: Bears Ears Monument is too big.  Indeed, the Antiquities Act itself addresses the issue of monument size. It states that:

“the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

In other words, let’s not get carried away and make our monuments bigger than needed to protect the priceless heritage resting there. However, determining the appropriate size is a subjective task.  Sometimes small is okay, like the tiny Hovenweep (784 acres). Other times, larger spaces are needed to fully enclose and protect precious lands. Who can accurately say where the land and a specific people were no longer intertwined? What about sacred mountain tops, navigable rivers, and summer hunting grounds? Who can say how big is enough? Certainly not our current administration.

Bear’s Ears is just one fight over keeping our public lands under Federal jurisdiction, where they will receive more protection.  Utah politicians are on the leading edge of the bigger fight to give states control over many vast tracts of federal land. This issue precedes the Bear’s Ears debate and the movement is led, in part, by two Utah Representatives,  Jason Chaffetz ( he introduced bill that would have sold off 3.3m acres of national land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management) and Rob Bishop ( he called for a “paradigm shift in our nation’s approach to federal land management”, demanding that $50m be assigned to help transfer federal land to state, local, and tribal governments). Sound good? It is all underwritten by greed.


After reading Hamilton this summer, I understand more clearly that states rights are an important part of our democracy. Issues that affect only the wishes of the people of that state should, indeed, be administered on the state level. However, issues that affect us all should be controlled by the Federal Government. And, our waterways and public lands belong to all of us, whether we live in that state or not. Bear’s Ears is my land, your land, and we have the right to expect it will be protected. We have the right to limit industrial development on sacred lands that are filled with archeological sites.

All of this begs the question: Can our current president rescind or reduce the size of Bear’s Ears National Monument?Another, more recent act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, addresses this issue. Many believe it states “that the President does not have any implied authority to (abolish or modify monuments), but rather that Congress reserved for itself the power to modify or revoke monument designations” (Stephen Nash, NYT). What that means is today’s action will be tied up in court, wasting more of our money, and the original size may stand after all. 

Grandstanding. Greed. It’s like an infectious disease that just keeps spreading.


Do you have thoughts about Bear’s Ears and/or the larger issues? I would like to publish your thoughts here! Email me at


Next time: Mining vs. Recreation: Dual Hazards in the Western US. The history of White Sands National Monument underscores another issue…one that even outdoor people like myself must confront


2 thoughts on “Bear’s Ears: Underneath the Controversy

  1. Simplistic I know but the view from over here is that Trump is happy to destroy Bears Ears for two reasons:
    So his rich friends can exploit the natural resources
    Obama protected it and he is obsessed with undoing anything and everything Obama did.

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