Bears Ears region is at center of land debate

Native American groups and lawmakers have clashed over proposals for how to best protect the land in southeastern Utah

Hannah Grover
  • More than 100,000 archaeological sites are contained in the nearly 2 million acres of land.
  • An inter-tribal coalition has petitioned the president to designate the land a national monument.
  • Utah lawmakers have drafted a bill to make the southeast Utah land a national conservation area.
  • Vandalism, looting and off-road vehicles threaten the fragile archaeology of the land.
An aerial view of the southeastern edge of Cedar Mesa is pictured just after sunrise in the Bears Ears region of Utah.

FARMINGTON — As management of Western public lands has again become the center of a heated controversy, an area in the Four Corners known as "Bears Ears" is taking its place in the spotlight.

The land borders the Navajo Nation, as well as the White Mesa Ute community south of Blanding in southern Utah. Bears Ears includes 1.9 million acres that start just south of Moab and stretch to Bluff. Within the boundaries are more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancestral Puebloan structures, Navajo hogans and Navajo and Ute rock art.

The land is also where the Navajo and Ute people have traditionally performed ceremonies, gathered medicinal plants and collected pine nuts and firewood.

Over the years, several of the archaeological sites have been looted or vandalized, leading to a movement to protect the land. And while the involved parties agree the land needs to be protected, the details of how to do that have been divisive.

In 2013, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, formed the Public Lands Initiative to evaluate how to best protect the region. More than 1,200 people attended meetings and various proposals were considered under the initiative.

Dozens of plans have been proposed that offer varying degrees of protection for the area’s archaeological sites. Some proposals advocate turning the region or portions of it into a national conservation area. Others advocate stricter regulations through national monument designation.

The Abajo Mountains near Blanding, Utah, would be part of the Bears Ears National Monument if President Barack Obama designates the land a national monument.

Several tribes with ties to the area felt they were left out of the conversation about how to protect the land. That led to the formation of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, which includes members of the Navajo Nation; Hopi Tribe; Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which includes the White Mesa Ute; Pueblo of Zuni; and Ute Indian Tribe.

In October, the coalition petitioned President Barack Obama to designate the nearly 2 million acres as a national monument.

This is not the first time the federal government has been asked to make the area a national monument. In July 2011, then Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley asked the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to designate the lands as a national monument.

But this is the first time Native American tribes have formed a coalition to make such a request.

The tribes are not just seeking a national monument designation, according to Eric Descheenie, co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal coalition.

"We are asking for equal distribution of authority," he said, explaining that under the coalition’s proposal, each of the five tribes would have a representative on a commission that makes decisions about managing the national monument.

Natural Bridges National Monument, pictured here in May 2014, could be incorporated into the proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

In January, Bishop and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, released a discussion draft of a bill that would create a National Conservation Area to protect Bears Ears. Lee Lonberg, a spokesman for Bishop, said there is no date set for when the bill will go before Congress, however the congressmen hope to move it through quickly.

"The decision to protect the land in that fashion comes from Utah Navajos and residents of San Juan County (Utah)," said Lee Lonberg, a Bishop spokesman.

Lonberg said comments from Navajo who are members of the Aneth chapter — who made their concerns about possible limitations on traditional activities in the area known through protests and petitions — influenced the decision not to support a national monument.

Lonberg said it has been Bishop's stance from the beginning that the bill will please everyone and upset everyone.

"Everyone has to give something up," Lonberg said.

The bill has drawn opposition from the inter-tribal coalition, which sent a letter to the congressmen on Jan. 20, the coalition says the boundaries proposed for the conservation area fail to protect cultural sites and wildlife habitat.

The coalition also expressed concerns the bill would leave too much land open to mineral extraction.

A map shows the boundaries of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah.

National Monument vs. National Conservation Area

The inter-tribal coalition's proposal for a national monument is unique because it would include Native American input about land management and it includes a larger area. The coalition wrote a letter in response to the proposed bill stating that the boundaries of the national conservation area fail to protect some of the cultural sites and wildlife habitat areas. While the coalition is asking for 1.9 million acres, the draft bill calls for a little more than 1.1 million acres to be put aside.

The coalition also opposed the management plan included in the bill. The bill would create a management commission comprised of four appointed members — a representative from the Navajo tribe who currently resides in San Juan County, Utah, a representative from one of the four other tribes in the coalition, a representative from the Utah Department of Natural Resources and a designee from San Juan County, Utah. In its letter to the congressmen, the coalition said the proposed bill fails to give tribes adequate representation.

Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Butler Wash in the Bears Ears region are pictured in November 2013.

In contrast, the coalition's commission — with supervisory authority over the national monument — would include eight members, a representative from each of the five tribes and each of the federal agencies, which includes the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Parks Service. This commission would oversee hiring the monument's manager and preference would be made in the hiring process for Native American candidates.

The coalition also stated in its letter that the proposed national conservation area leaves too much land open to mineral extraction, such as oil and gas development. It is asking in its petition that existing mineral rights be honored, but no new mineral rights be developed. This would mean that current oil and gas wells would continue to operate, but no new wells could be drilled.

Lonberg said the draft bill allows a level of certainty for people in the county who use the land. He said that local residents, including members of the Navajo Nation, supported including possibilities for oil and gas development.

"This is a new approach to things," said Lonberg.

He added that the bill demonstrates that "economic development and conservation can exist hand in hand."

Gilbert Ben, center, of Aneth Chapter in Utah, was part of a group that shared concerns about Bears Ears in a gathering in front of the Navajo Nation Council chamber and during the winter session on Jan. 25 in Window Rock, Ariz.


While the petition to create a national monument has garnered support from dozens of tribes as well as environmentalists, some Navajo residents of the Aneth, Utah, area are concerned that the designation would hurt their ability to use the land for ceremonies and plant gathering.

In late January, members of the Descendants of Kayallii — a group of Navajo people with ties to the Bears Ears region — traveled to Window Rock, Ariz., to protest the national monument petition during the Navajo Nation council session.

"If it becomes a monument, everybody will be shut out of this place," said Gilbert Ben, the group's president, during a telephone interview.

Chester Johnson, another protester, echoed Ben's concern. He said a national monument designation would restrict access to the natural resources, such as firewood and medicinal plants. The National Conservation Area would also leave the possibility of mineral leasing, which could raise money that could help the schools in the rural area, Johnson said.

Both Johnson and Ben said they support the bill also because it was created based on input from people who live in the area who will be directly impacted by the designation.

A petroglyph of a crane is pictured in the Bears Ears region of southeast Utah in this undated courtesy image.


The Bears Ears region has been used by Native American tribes for thousands of years and numerous tribes claim connections to the region. Creation stories of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribes all connect them with the region, according to the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition. Today, Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute have reservations near the Bears Ears.

The section of Navajo Nation near Bears Ears was added to the reservation in 1933 and residents like Ben say the extension, known as the Aneth extension, was added after the U.S. government recognized the presence of Navajo in the region.

During the 1860s, as white people moved into the Four Corners area settling on traditional Navajo land, fighting broke out. The U.S. government forced tribal members to relocate to land near Fort Sumner in what is known as "The Long Walk." Rather than leave their homeland, several leaders with ties to the Bears Ears region resisted.

The most famous leader of the resistance, Chief Manuelito, was born in the Bears Ears area, but he was not the only leader to refuse to leave. Another, Chief Kaayalii, led a group of people into the Bears Ears region.

"They hid in Bear Ears country for 10 years," said Gilbert Ben, the president of Descendants of Kaayalii Inc., a group of Navajo from the Aneth area that has been vocal against the proposed national monument.

The Navajo who were in the Bears Ears region were given land in what is known as the Aneth extension through the 1933 act that expanded the reservation.

The region also has historical significance for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who settled there in 1880.

To get their horses and wagons down the canyons to Bluff, Utah, the settlers created a hole through the sandstone, now known as Hole-in-the-Rock. The draft congressional bill would set aside this trail as a historic trail marking the journey of the first Latter-day Saint settlers to southeast Utah.

If the Bears Ears region is declared a national monument, formations like this one in Valley of the Gods near Mexican Hat, Utah, would be included in the area.


Located on the Colorado Plateau, the Bears Ears region includes numerous canyons, many of which have picturesque scenes, such as House on Fire, an ancestral Puebloan site whose name stems from the coloring above the site, which resembles flames.

Comb Ridge — a series of sandstone hills reaching up to 800 feet high — offers views over the region, including several side canyons. The highest point of the region is in the Abajo Mountains, located in the Manti-La Sal National Forest near Monticello and Blanding. The mountains reach more than 11,000 feet.

The name of the lands comes from two neighboring hills.

"Looking at it from a distance, it looks like bear ears," Ben said. "But once you get close, it's a large area."

The formation known as Bears Ears in southeast Utah is pictured in this undated courtesy photo.


Over the years, many of the archaeological sites, including burial sites and ancestral Puebloan structures such as cliff dwellings, have been vandalized, looted or destroyed.

"A lot of damage has already been done," said Descheenie, the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition co-chairman.

Descheenie cited two high-profile cases highlighting the need for protection of the Bears Ears region — an illegal ATV ride near archaeological sites and a federal investigation into looted Native American sites in San Juan County, Utah.

In December, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was convicted of illegally riding an ATV in Recapture Canyon north of Blanding. The commissioner led the ride in 2007 to protest federal land management practices after the Bureau of Land Management closed the area to off-road vehicles to protect cultural artifacts. Lyman appealed his conviction.

"Monument status for Bears Ears will lead to better management of off-road vehicle use and will improve the recreational experience for everyone who visits, including off-roaders," the coalition wrote in its petition to Obama.

A panel of petroglyphs is pictured in May 2014 at Natural Bridges National Monument. The monument could be incorporated into the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, if President Barack Obama approves a petition filed by several Native American groups.

In the other case, federal agents conducted a 2009 raid on eight homes, confiscating thousands of illegally collected artifacts and arresting residents. During the raids, 24 people were arrested, including 16 Blanding residents.

A prominent Blanding doctor, who had collected a small bird effigy, was arrested during the raids and later committed suicide. In May 2011, the doctor's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in connection to the raids. The family alleged that the doctor, James Redd, committed suicide while reflecting "on the excessive, overreaching and abusive treatment he had been subjected to."  The family also alleged that Redd's constitutional rights were violated during the raid. In December, a federal judge ruled that excessive force had not been used during the raid. The family appealed the court's decision in January.

The thousands of artifacts collected during the raids were placed in federal warehouses, but the looting of archaeological sites has continued.

"From small-scale theft to ancestral remains being tossed around when graves are plundered, these deplorable acts defile the past and wound the present, which for us is so directly connected to the past," the coalition says in its petition.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Butler Wash in the Bears Ears region are pictured in May 2014.