Bears Ears Monument is a win for tribal food sovereignty. Will Trump undo it?

Last week, President Obama created the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, bringing the total of new protected lands designated by his administration to 553 million acres. That’s more than any other president in U.S. history. But if Obama has earned a gold star in the eyes of environmentalists and the Native American tribes who pushed for both decisions, his critics are already calling on Trump to reverse the order. Especially in Utah, opponents would like to see the land in question open to potential energy extraction.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop says in a video, “Utahns will use every tool at our disposal … whether it is judicial action, legislative action or even executive action” to repeal the Bears Ears decision. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says his office is readying a lawsuit against the federal government. And Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent subpoenas to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, demanding all documents related to the Bears Ears designation dating back to 2013.

In Nevada, the political climate is slightly friendlier toward the announcement, since outgoing Sen. Harry Reid actively fought for Gold Butte alongside Native Americans. But friends and family of Cliven Bundy, the rancher who is under investigation for his role in an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management after he refused to pay his grazing fees for more than two decades, protested outside the Gold Butte access road. They held signs aloft, calling on Trump to revoke monument status — something that no president has done in the 111-year history of the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the right to create national monuments.

The criticism is part of the larger discord over public lands in the West, where almost half of all land is federally owned. But in the case of Bears Ears, the battle is also a matter of food sovereignty for the thousands of native peoples who use the area to forage and hunt.

“Up to 20,000 natives of various tribes live within 45 minutes of Bears Ears, including 10,000 Navajos that live just across the border in Arizona,” says Gavin Noyes, director of the Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo nonprofit that helped develop the initial draft of the monument proposal in 2013. For more than 3,000 years, natives have used the Bears Ears area — in modern-day San Juan County, Utah — to hunt and gather firewood, pignon nuts, and medicinal plants. The county is the poorest in Utah, with a population approaching 16,000, about half of whom are Navajo. Many natives, who often lack electricity and running water, still come to the area for food and traditional medicine.  

Noyes was part of efforts to map where medicine healers and hunters search out wild game and plants around Bears Ears. The map is confidential, though, as tribal members worry that outsiders might try to overharvest valuable medicinal species, just as they have stolen ancient artifacts from local tribal gravesites.

Eventually, the Navajo Nation formed an inter-tribal coalition with a number of other tribes to draw up a plan to safeguard 1.9 million acres from energy extraction. The coalition sent its plan to the San Juan County commission, but nothing happened. The tribes claim discrimination, citing the fact that a majority of the commissioners are white.

County leaders say they just wanted to keep open the possibility of energy extraction. “San Juan County is the 29th-poorest county in the country. To say we don’t want to even look for oil is stupid,” former San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman told FERN. Lyman served 10 days in jail last year and was put on probation from the commission after he led an ATV ride over a Native American archeological site to protest the closure of Recapture Canyon by federal authorities who sought to protect the artifacts. The canyon is located on federal land a few miles outside of Blanding, Utah, in San Juan County — and not within the Bears Ears Monument.

Ultimately, the county commissioners rejected the tribal proposal. Instead they sent their own plan, which maintained land for energy extraction, to Reps. Bishop and Chaffetz, who at the time were drafting a master proposal for managing Utah’s controversial public lands. Both Bishop and Chaffetz are part of the chorus of voices in the West calling for the federal government to cede control of public land to the states. Bishop chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and his biggest campaign donors are from the oil and gas industry, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Beginning in 2013, Bishop and Chaffetz conducted more than 1,200 stakeholder meetings with energy companies, ranchers, and environmentalists. The tribes claim they were intentionally excluded. Last year, when the two politicians revealed their Public Lands Initiative, calling it a “Grand Bargain,” the tribes argued that large swaths of land in the Bears Ears had been left out, leaving it vulnerable to energy companies. Environmentalists raged that the bill favored fossil fuels

By the time the Public Lands Initiative was released, the inter-tribal coalition, convinced that it had no other choice, had reached out to Obama on its own. The bill failed to get to a floor vote  before Congress adjourned for the year. The White House, though, kept talking with the tribes, and last week they got what they wanted. So too did the 71 percent of people in Utah who said they supported protecting Bears Ears, according to one poll.

Under the Bears Ears Monument designation, the inter-tribal coalition will partner with the U.S Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to manage the area, ensuring that tribes have access to food supplies and firewood. Such a partnership has never been attempted before in the 48 contiguous states. For whites, conservation is a matter of not using the land, Noyes says. For natives, it means actively tending it as they have for generations. “Our goal is to change how Americans view landscapes so that they include cultures,” as well as plants and animals, he said.

The Bears Ears Monument will cover 1.35 million acres, down from the 1.9 million acres that the tribal coalition had requested. And the final plan didn’t entirely ignore the Public Lands Initiative bill, which would have protected 1.4 million acres. For instance, the monument boundaries exclude the Daneros uranium mine, which mine operators say they hope to expand soon.

Mining within the monument will be prohibited, but ranchers can still graze there, according to a statement by the Department of the Interior. (Grazing hasn’t been allowed in the Gold Butte area since 1998 in order to protect the Mojave Desert tortoise’s habitat.)

Bruce Adams, a rancher and San Juan County commissioner told FERN last year that while it’s important to look out for the rights of natives, the white “people who came to the area in the late 1800s” need to survive, too. And for them, that means ranching, but also extracting oil, gas, copper, and uranium. “Why should one group of people be given consideration over the rest of us?” he said.

Adams told reporters that San Juan County will join the state in suing the federal government over Bears Ears. Meanwhile, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch says he’s scheduling a meeting with Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, to discuss what can be done about Bears Ears. And while no president has ever undone a predecessor’s monument designation, Trump could try to be the first even though some experts doubt he could win the legal case. Though even if he doesn’t try, Congress could cancel the monument. It has done so in the past, but only 11 times — and only once in the last 50 years.

Kristina Johnson is associate editor at FERN.