Juliet Eilperin’s Washington Post article on the proposed Bears Ears National Monument paints a vivid picture of ATVs tearing across the desert, vandals destroying petroglyphs, and treasure hunters desecrating ceremonial chambers.
Her writing focuses on two likely outcomes: (1) President Barack Obama unilaterally designates an almost 2 million-acre national monument and incites armed insurrection in the process, or (2) we sit by and watch as priceless artifacts, ancient dwellings and sacred sites are plundered. This is a false choice that keeps us a long way from a real solution.
Like so many other similar pieces, Eilperin’s narrative fails to recognize the views of the Navajos of San Juan County — who actually live close to the Bears Ears. They believe that a monument designation would put the Bears Ears at risk as never before.
Last month I traveled to Bluff and met with members of the Aneth and Oljato chapters of the Navajo Nation. Unlike other Native Americans who have involved themselves in the national monument debate, these people call this area home and have an unparalleled connection with it. For them, the Bears Ears is more than just a place to hunt, collect firewood and gather pinyon nuts in the fall.
“The Bears Ears is part of life. That’s the place where our people, our ancestors, even us today, we still go up there and do our offerings and prayers,” Denton Ben, a leader in the community, told me. “It’s part of our heart and our mind. It’s really sacred to us.”
While Ben and other local Navajo residents are not oblivious that looting has occurred on and around their sacred mountain, they believe that public opinion and federal laws have evolved enough to mitigate the problem.
Chester Johnson of the Aneth Chapter told me, “I have read the National Historic Preservation Act — these types of ruins, special sites and trails are already protected. To impose another national monument is not necessary; it’s not going to offer more protection.”
Johnson is right. The National Historic Preservation Act enables archaeological sites to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing them further federal protections. There are also at least five other federal laws, along with a multitude of state laws and court rulings, that protect our nation’s archaeological and Native Americans’ cultural resources. A national monument designation will not significantly change the protections afforded to the Bears Ears.
What will change, however, is the number of hikers, campers and tourists who visit the area. National monument supporters acknowledge as much when they describe the proposed monument as an “economic asset.” The source of those potential economic benefits is increased tourism driven by a national monument designation.
But what will that mean for the Native Americans’ interests? This increased traffic will put the cultural resources of the Bears Ears at an increased risk of destruction and desecration — especially considering that the federal government can’t afford to provide additional law enforcement to the area.
Federal land management agencies are strapped for cash. According to the Property and Environment Research Center, the National Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion — an amount five times that of its latest budget from Congress. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service aren’t doing much better, as they have a combined backlog of almost $6 billion.
Characterizing a monument designation under the Antiquities Act as the savior of the archaeological and sacred sites of southeastern Utah is wrong. Not only will a national monument designation fail to further protect the Bears Ears, but the increased tourism it generates will put cultural resources in harm’s way.
Andrew Tso of the Aneth Chapter understands what this means for him and his people: “If the Bears Ears is to be made a national monument it seems like part of your body will be cut out. It’s not going to function right. It’s going to hurt.”
We understand the Obama administration’s concern about the president’s legacy. But we ask that he listen to the voices of the San Juan County Navajos and avoid adding to the legacy of federal abuse of Native Americans.
Matthew Anderson is policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute.