Monument Designation Protects World-Class Cultural Resources at Bears Ears

By Janelle DiLuccia posted 01-03-2017 15:46


In southeastern Utah, a pair of buttes known as Bears Ears stand out on a landscape that includes some of the most significant cultural resources in the nation. The cultural and archaeological sites in the area surrounding Bears Ears—Ice Age hunting camps, prehistoric villages, cliff dwellings, and petroglyph and pictograph panels—reflect 12,000 years of human history. Though the landscape is remarkably intact, these irreplaceable resources face threats from looting, vandalism, and conflicting uses.

On December 28, President Barack Obama took a huge step to protect this area by issuing a presidential proclamation designating the Bears Ears National Monument. The president used his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect approximately 1.35 million acres of public lands. This designation, though smaller than what has been proposed, is a big win for preservation and for Native Americans. According to the Los Angeles Times, this is the first time in conservation history that the primary advocates for a monument designation has come from Native American Tribes that will also be established as co-managers of the monument through a Native American–elected commission.


Bears Ears in southeastern Utah. | Creidt: Photo by Lusha Evans

The National Trust has long worked toward permanent protections for the irreplaceable and diverse cultural resources of this region, including naming it a National Treasure in 2013 and listing it among the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2016. The area holds particular significance for a number of Native American tribes, including the five sovereign Indian nations—the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute, and Zuni—who formally petitioned President Barack Obama to designate a Bears Ears National Monument to protect this important landscape. The National Trust is proud to have partnered with tribes, Friends of Cedar Mesa, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, and many others to preserve this area for future generations.

The National Trust’s Work to Protect Bears Ears

The National Trust has been engaged with the legislative efforts to resolve land use conflicts in southeast Utah and provide much-needed protection to cultural resources in the area since working with Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah) on a public lands bill for San Juan County in 2007. The Trust was one of the only national nonprofits to continue working with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) on the development of their Utah Public Lands Initiative Act (H.R. 5780), which could have provided protection for cultural resources on public lands in five eastern Utah counties.

Unfortunately, the bill that was ultimately introduced on July 14, 2016, failed to sufficiently protect the nationally significant resources of the area and would have weakened protections to designated wilderness areas. Further, the bill would have created a dangerous precedent by transferring the permitting of oil and gas development from federal land managers to the state.

National Trust President and CEO Stephanie K. Meeks outlined these serious concerns and called on the president to use his authority to designate a national monument in testimony for a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on September 14, 2016. This same message had been shared with congressional staff in July in testimony for a field hearing on the proposal. It was clear that this Public Lands Initiative as introduced would not garner the necessary bipartisan support in Congress to become law. In early December, the House and Senate completed their work for the year without taking up the bill, further bolstering the case for a presidential designation under the Antiquities Act instead.


A perfectly preserved granary on Cedar Mesa that once stored corn to tide over Ancestral Puebloans through years of bad crops.
| Creidt: Photo by Josh Ewing

The Antiquities Act was our nation’s first law providing protection for historic, prehistoric, and scientific features located on federal lands. Haphazard development and commercial looting of artifacts in the late 19th century gave rise to a movement to preserve archaeological sites on public lands and led Congress to pass the act. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the law gives the president the authority to designate national monuments on federal lands to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” Since its enactment, 16 of the 19 presidents—eight Republicans and eight Democrats—have used the authority provided by act to designate more than 150 national monuments.

Recently, the National Trust led a letter to President Obama encouraging him use his authority under the Antiquities Act to proclaim a Bears Ears National Monument before the end of 2016. Including the National Trust, the letter was signed by 18 national, regional, and local organizations dedicated to preserving cultural and archaeological resources. These groups represent professional anthropologists, archaeologists, tribal historic preservation officers, as well as general enthusiasts for preservation—important voices in the chorus for protecting our shared heritage.

Going Forward

Securing a national monument designation is a tremendous accomplishment, but there is still work to be done to ensure that these cultural and archaeological treasures are protected for future generations. Preservation leaders can be a tremendous asset to these efforts.

  • Participate in the planning process. The Bears Ears National Monument includes public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. With the monument designation, these agencies will update management plans to reflect the priorities outlined in the presidential proclamation. Preservationists, archaeologists, and others who care about this area should look for opportunities to participate in this process.
  • Support resources for good stewardship. Land management agencies face constrained resources and staffing for activities like cultural resource surveys and law enforcement. Currently the BLM oversees about 2 million acres in San Juan County, Utah, with just two archaeologists and two rangers. The National Trust advocates for appropriate resources for land management agencies through the annual budget and appropriations process. Be alert for opportunities to weigh in with the administration and members of Congress about the importance of properly funding land management activities that support preservation.
  • Defend the Antiquities Act. While it’s still too early to tell exactly how the new administration will approach the Antiquities Act, several members of Congress have openly expressed hostility toward the act and specific monuments designated under this authority. We can expect continued challenges to the Antiquities Act from congressional foes. It will be important that members of Congress, and especially Senators, hear from groups and constituents who care about these areas. Click here to show your support.

Janelle DiLuccia is the associate director of public lands policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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