On Dec. 1, the San Juan County Commission passed a resolution requesting that President-Elect Joe Biden restore Bears Ears National Monument to its original bounds when he takes office.
Four years ago, President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument through the Antiquities Act. The monument, which was then 1.35 million acres, had been requested by five Native American tribes — Hopi, Zuni, Diné (Navajo), Ute Mountain Ute and Ute, all members of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — who have cultural and historical ties to the area.
President Donald Trump substantially reduced the monument to 15% of its original acreage in 2017 into Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments, citing local opposition to the monument as his reasoning. All members of Utah’s Congressional delegation, Utah Governor Gary Herbert and the San Juan County Commission had opposed the monument’s designation in 2016. The five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition sued the president, arguing that the reduction was illegal, and the litigation is still working its way through federal courts.
“I think Bears Ears is a particular place that’s a crossroads of healing. Through the years and through the ages, there are many tribes that have stories tied to that place. For the Navajos, it's somewhat of a sanctuary, a home,” said Woody Lee, Executive Director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, in an interview with the Moab Sun News. UDB is a nonprofit that practices healing by strengthening Indigenous ties to the land.
“We support that particular resolution by the county and the recent information that's been trickling down from the new administration,” Lee continued.
President-Elect Biden spoke about his commitment to restoring tribal lands and natural resources on the campaign trail, promising to “take immediate steps to reverse the Trump administration’s assaults on natural treasures, including...Bears Ears.”
Biden also committed to restoring the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by President Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2017, President Trump divided that monument, which was then 1.9 million acres, into three smaller units totaling just over one million acres. Several Indigeous and conservationist groups sued the Trump Administration, with that litigation still pending.
“We are pleased to know of the commitment from president-elect Biden to reverse and rectify the illegal reductions in 2017,” wrote Sarah Bauman, executive director of the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, after the general election. “From its cultural and biological resources to its ability to help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, we are grateful for the ability to continue to explore Grand Staircase for critical insights into our past and guidance for the survival of all species.”
All three members of the prior San Juan County Commission had opposed Bears Ears’ designation as a national monument in 2016, but now, two-thirds of the commission are Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation. The resolution was presented by Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, affirmed by Commissioner Willie Greyeyes and opposed by Commissioner Bruce Adams, the commission’s lone Republican.
“I think we know that Joe Biden made a priority in his campaign to restore this monument. It seems a little bit premature to me to try and put pressure on him to do this before he’s been made the president,” Adams said about his opposition at the commission’s meeting on Dec. 1.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done to help the Navajo people rather than playing political games.”
The San Juan County Commission has a history of mediating public lands disputes, particularly between the current members. On Feb. 3, the commissioners met with San Juan County Public Lands Planning Department official Nick Sandberg. At the time, the Bureau of Land Management was considering revising grazing regulations to eliminate a 15-day protest period after a proposed decision on a permit renewal.
“Any time the government decides to do less regulation on any of the public lands, I think that’s good,” said Adams at the February meeting, adding that “I might be the only one who thinks that’s good.”
Lee noted that the Bears Ears area is significant for many regional tribes, and also hopes that in the future, the cultural landscape can be shared with visitors.
“It's one of those places where you get there and you start feeling like you’re comfortably at home. That's a place where we all need to save just as it is. We take care of our home for this generation and generations to come,” he said.
“We did the right thing,” Commissioner Greyeyes told The Salt Lake Tribune about the resolution. “I’m hoping the changes will come in our favor. We stand together.”