Justice for Bears Ears: New Congress offers chance to make things right

Rock art in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Rock art in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society

Proposals would restore and expand Bears Ears, block future attacks

New leadership in Congress brings a crucial opportunity to respond to one of the Trump administration’s most egregious anti-public lands attacks: the unlawful cuts to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in 2017, which reduced the protected boundaries of those landscapes by 85 and 47 percent, respectively.  

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For starters, lawmakers are investigating how the Trump administration arrived at its fateful decision in the first place—namely, whether then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other staff properly consulted with tribal nations, local communities and scientists during their “review” of monuments, or whether they took cues only from a uranium mining company and other special interests. 

So far, it’s looking an awful lot like the latter. On March 13, the House Natural Resources Committee exposed new evidence suggesting the Trump administration re-drew monument boundaries at the behest of energy and mining lobbyists, adding to a huge body of existing media accounts. That same day, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that extensive cuts to Grand Staircase-Escalante were made in defiance of the Department of the Interior’s own findings about the scientific and economic value of the landscape, seemingly meeting a predetermined outcome to placate a select moneyed and politically powerful few. 

Bill would reinstate, expand Bears Ears to tribal vision

How to right these injustices? Members of Congress, led by Rep. Deb Haaland, Sen. Tom Udall, Rep. Ruben Gallego and others have a few ideas.

One new proposal would restore Bears Ears National Monument to what was originally envisioned by the Native American tribes, giving permanent protection to thousands of important cultural and archaeological sites.

The Bears Ears Expansion And Respect for Sovereignty (BEARS) Act would:

  • Restore protection to key sites that were left exposed in the wake of Trump’s illegal reduction, including rock art and ancient cliff dwellings
  • Expand protection for Bears Ears National Monument to the full area originally proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, an alliance of five sovereign tribal nations: the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni 
  • Include not only the more than 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites protected by President Obama’s monument declaration in 2016, but an even greater share of the surrounding land that is integral to tribal culture, honoring “the Native presence that has blended into every cliff and corner,” in the words of the original proposal
  • Restore the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition tribes to their rightful management role over the landscape in collaboration with federal agencies

An additional bill would reinforce that only Congress has the ability to diminish or revoke a national monument designation, forestalling unlawful actions like Trump’s.

The America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of States Act, or ANTIQUITIES Act, would:

  • Reinforce current law that presidents do not have the authority to reduce or eliminate national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, preventing future attacks like Trump’s
  • Officially express support and protection for the 52 national monuments established since January 1996—the era encompassing the most frequently attacked monuments and those specifically targeted by the Trump administration review--including cherished natural and cultural landmarks ranging from California’s San Gabriel Mountains to Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan
  • Create a national monument enhancement fund to help improve recreational infrastructure, conservation and historic preservation on such lands. 

Taken together, these proposals are a powerful statement in favor of tribal sovereignty and conservation, and against the Trump-era war on public lands.

We will keep working with leaders in Congress and throughout the country in support of measures like these to win lasting protection for the places that matter most.

Bears Ears National Monument, UT

Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society