Bears Ears has become a flash point that could determine the future of America’s public lands. A new public television documentary will explore the many sides of the contentious issue in a piece called Battle Over Bears Ears. The film premieres Monday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. on KUED.
What the documentary makes clear is that many involved in the debate feel a profound cultural and spiritual connection to the land that has more archeological sites than any national park or monument in the country. Where they differ is on how best to protect and use it.
The fight is playing out south of Moab in San Juan County, which is home to about 15,000 people — half of whom are Native American. In the summer of 2016, tension grew when five tribes with ancestral roots there proposed a new national monument named for the twin buttes that have spiritual significance to them.
But the proposal drew local opposition. Sides were quickly drawn and tempers flared.
“What I heard, when you strip out the emotion, was a yearning for these places that are very important to them,” says Sally Jewel, former Secretary of the Interior who came to the region for a listening tour. “There was a genuine interest for protection of the landscape, but what does that mean?”
To some it means setting sacred land aside as a monument to protect it, while others fear that a monument will mean being locked out of the land so “nobody can use it.”
The documentary lays out the history of the battle over Bears Ears. In 2015, the five tribes — who had a history of fighting each other — banded together to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The coalition asked the Obama administration to create a 1.9-million-acre national monument that would allow tribes to manage the area alongside federal agencies. They wanted the White House to use the Antiquities Act of 1906, empowering the president to set aside land preserving scientific and archeological treasures without congressional approval. Utah leaders opposed executive action.
On Dec. 28, 2016, President Obama signed a proclamation setting aside 1.4 million acres as Bears Ears National Monument. But with the arrival of the Trump administration, Bears Ears was in the cross-hairs. Almost a year later, on Dec. 4, 2017, the president came to Salt Lake City to announce his decision to shrink the monument by 85 percent. Tribes and environmentalists filed lawsuits, claiming presidential overreach.
Passion runs deep on all sides. Angelo Baca, a Navajo with deep ancestral ties to the land, says the region has become a “flashpoint for existing issues.” Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, says the monument has become “a political football.”
Willie Grayeyes, who helped create Utah Diné Bikéyah, an advocacy group in support of the monument, has wanted his whole life to see the homeland of his Navajo ancestors protected. “This is my birthright. Who wants to sell their birthright?”
But not all Native Americans in the region support the monument. Danielle Shirley, a student advocate at a local school, lives on the Navajo reservation. She and her grandmother were at the forefront of the movement to rescind the monument. “That’s our temple,” she says. “That’s our source of life and you’re just allowing it for everyone to walk over it, trash it, and pollute it…As Native Americans we’re always being overlooked. Why trust the federal government now?”
Some who oppose the monument fear that the very tool used to protect Bears Ears will bring tourists in to destroy it.
Jamie Bayles, president of Stewards of San Juan County, is concerned that local voices weren’t included in the process. “A monument is not the right thing for this area,” she says. “San Juan was left out.”
Also at play is the threat of energy development. Active oil and gas fields lie north and east of the monument, while uranium deposits are scattered throughout the monument. Behind the scenes, energy companies were urging the Trump administration to shrink the size of Bears Ears.
For now, the fate of the monument is tied up in legal battles.
Angelo Baca sees one way forward. “There needs to be a peacemaking process to get things restored back to balance.”
Former Interior Secretary Jewell says, “We need to find opportunities to build a common language. To understand what we mean when we say ‘protection.’ To sit across the table from one another to get to know each other as human beings and to recognize that we’re not actually very far apart. We care deeply about the land, about our families and the next generation and the traditions that are important to us.”
But many wonder if it is possible to find consensus among the deep divisions. The question remains, how can Utah’s diverse voices and interests in this extraordinary landscape find common ground?
After its premier Nov. 12 it will be repeated Nov. 13 at 10 p.m., Nov.16 at 8 p.m., and Nov. 18 at 3 p.m. It was produced by Nancy Green and Dana Barraco.