An Open Letter to Secretary of the Interior Zinke re the Bears Ears National Monument

Dear Secretary Zinke:

I have read the text of the Antiquities Act of 1906, and it contains no provision for the review you have undertaken, so I regard the entire process as having questionable legitimacy at best. This review has been undertaken strictly for political purposes, at the behest of a small clique of anti–public lands extremists in the Utah congressional delegation and state government, including representatives Bishop and Chaffetz, senators Hatch and Lee, and Governor Herbert. Their goal is to turn over our public lands to the states and, ultimately, open them up for private exploitation. Their agenda is not shared by the majority of the citizens of Utah, and still less by Americans as a whole.

The opponents of the Bears Ears National Monument (hereafter, BENM) have promoted a number of false narratives, which are enumerated below. These are easily refuted by anyone willing to acquaint themselves with the facts of the matter.

1. The monument proclamation was a “land grab.” Only federally administered public lands (typically administered by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management) can be included in a national monument proclamation. The lands included in the BENM were and still are managed by the BLM; only their administrative status has changed. No land was taken from any private person or the state of Utah.

2. Local Native Americans do not support the monument. Six of seven Navajo chapter houses (local government units) in the Utah portion of the Navajo Reservation voted in favor of the monument, as did the Navajo tribal government as a whole and the governments of the four other tribes in the Bears Ears Coalition. The San Juan County Commission presents a handful of local natives, such as County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who oppose the monument, but these people are not representatives of the tribe, nor are their views representative of tribal opinion. No population has a unanimous opinion on any significant issue, but a large majority of natives supports the BENM.

3. The tribes were acting as a front for national environmental organizations and had been bought off. As someone actively involved as a volunteer organizer and lobbyist for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), I can personally refute this claim. We were actively promoting a different monument proposal for Southern Utah (Greater Canyonlands) when the Bears Ears monument was first proposed by Utah Diné Bikéyah, a native nonprofit group whose name means “people’s sacred lands.” SUWA, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other members of the Greater Canyonlands Coalition dropped our own proposal and decided to support the Bears Ears proposal because it was compatible with our goals of public lands protection, but Utah Diné Bikéyah and the other tribes comprising the Bears Ears Coalition led the way and were responsible for shaping the monument proposal and now have a key role in managing the monument.

4. Local people should have the primary say in whether lands should receive monument status. These lands belong to all of the people of the United States. San Juan County Utah has a population of approximately 15,250, of which 47% are Native Americans, who predominately support the monument. So, assuming that all of the “white” population of the county opposes the BENM (probably not the case), this argument asserts that the wishes of about 8100 people, or 0.000025% of the US population, should be given precedence in a matter that concerns us all. I’m not sure exactly what to call this argument, but it is the opposite of democracy. A part of this argument is that local people know the land best and can best judge how to protect it. Experience has proved this false, both in the case of the Bears Ears and Utah in general. Local people in San Juan county have a long history of “collecting” Indian artifacts on public lands (aka grave robbing or pot hunting), and of driving ATVs over archaeological sites. It is these local people, among others, from whom the land needs protection. Further, four of Utah’s “mighty five” national parks, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches, began as national monuments. In every case, these were initially opposed by local interests, who could see no better uses for these lands than cattle grazing, timber cutting, and mining. Fortunately, various US presidents of both parties had the tool of the Antiquities Act on hand to use where national interests differed from the narrow economic interests of a handful of ranchers and miners.

Casting aside all of these false narratives, what remains? President Obama used his legitimate authority under the Antiquities Act to protect just the sort of resources that Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he first proposed the act. He was forced to act because Congress was unwilling or unable to do so. Leave the monument alone and in time it will join Utah’s “mighty five” parks as a driver of the local economy.

Secretary Zinke, you have characterized yourself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” where public lands are concerned. Ask yourself, “what would TR do?”

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