'Josh Ewing'
Outside Business Journal

Bears Ears: Why not?

Not everyone has been as passionate about protecting Bears Ears as the outdoor industry has. What's the resistance? We tried to understand the opposition.


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Bears Ears National Monument stands quiet. Sunbaked terracotta pillars hold sentinel like broken chess pieces over a sandy board. Wind stirs the pinyon pine, flicking drifts of sand at the feet of thousand-year-old petroglyphs. Waves of heat vibrate in the valleys, a soft pulse.

The land is wild and ancient, and it’s holding its breath.

The eye in a storm of boiled-over tempers and seething political debate, Bears Ears National Monument faces an uncertain future. On Dec. 28, 2016, just as he was leaving office, Barack Obama stamped a boundary around a plot of southeastern Utah, designating over 1.35 million acres of new national monument. Within the canyons, mesas, mountains, and forests comprising the massive tract lie world-class rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, hunting, and fishing as well as more than 100,000 archaeological sites containing evidence of occupation since as far back as 11,000 B.C.

The designation was cause for celebration in some camps, uproar in others. While many conservation and outdoor recreation groups responded with smug applause, local Utahans cursed the White House. Now, nearly five months later, opposing parties are still butting heads, and the landscape faces a new threat: President Donald Trump’s executive order demanding review of national monuments designated since 1996, which many in the outdoor industry see as a thinly veiled attack on Bears Ears.

Two-thirds of Utah is public land

In the minds of some locals, the Bears Ears designation is burglary, robbing locals of land that could feed their families and pay for their infrastructure. Two-thirds of Utah is public land, which doesn’t leave much for the state and local governments in the way of property taxes.

“We only have 33 percent of our land to fund everything from roads to schools,” says Tom Adams, director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. “Taking another 1.35 million acres out of that — that’s a big chunk of land the community didn’t have a say in.”

The land Bears Ears is on was already federally owned when the monument was designated. But locals in San Juan County — where the majority of the monument will be — and surrounding areas, like Grand County, are concerned about increased environmental regulations that might compromise the land uses they’ve built their businesses around, including livestock grazing and timber. Land management of national monuments changes the way the public uses the land, says Curtis Wells, commissioner of Grand County, home to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

“Top-down monument designations severely harm local communities that rely on land access for economic and cultural value,” he says. “There is a very real debate over what ‘protection’ through monument designations really accomplishes. Dragging a carrot for millions of tourists to trample through and severely impact treasured landscapes to the detriment of the local population has proven to be a mistake.”

According to the proclamation designating the monument, the Forest Service currently allows livestock grazing on nine different allotments within Bears Ears and will continue to honor all current leases and permits. No new ones will be allowed.

However, there are also valuable mineral resources on the land. Uranium deposits lie beneath White Canyon and Red Canyon, and Blanding, Utah, a small town of fewer than 4,000, is home to the only operating uranium mill in the United States. It only employs about 150 people currently, according to San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams. That 150 is a low number, though; pressure from conservation organizations near the Grand Canyon have recently halted development there, slowing the mill and Blanding’s employment opportunities with it.

While no oil or gas deposits have been identified in the area, an oil well was drilled on Cedar Mesa within sight of the proposed monument in 2014, says Josh Ewing, Executive Director of local conservation group Friends of Cedar Mesa. He also says a permit for drilling in 2017 has recently been approved for land that was proposed, but didn’t make the final cut, for inclusion in the monument.

The Monument Effect

Of course, national parks are known to bring in cash to local communities. A Headwaters Economics study of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for example, shows a 38 percent in job growth in the area 12 years after its designation in 1996.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Locals dismiss this data and argue that seasonal service industry jobs are a drop in the bucket compared to year-round, high-paying industry jobs lost when federal protections stifle mining and timber industries. Commissioner Wells also says local counties are already facing an affordable housing crisis with longtime residents being priced out of their homes by recreation-seeking newcomers.

“These [monuments] aren’t an economic boom,” says Leland Pollock, Commissioner of Garfield County, which surrounds Grand Staircase-Escalante. “You’re not going to sustain a family on a minimum wage job that only exists six months out of the year.”

To this end Bears Ears is too big, Pollock says. It takes up too much valuable land, the loss of which is driving people out of their towns. For example, in 2016 the school in Escalante was forced to declare a state of emergency because the number of students in 7 through 12 grade had dropped from 150 to 51 in the decade since the monument arrived. In Garfield County, families are leaving. Whether that’s because of changing commodity prices and supply chains or the presence of the monument remains to be seen, but locals like Pollock are convinced it’s the latter.

The Native American Perspective

The Native American voice is one that has been missing in much of the coverage surrounding Bears Ears, in spite of the vocal Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Often, both sides of the argument claim they’re acting in the interest of Native Americans, but those Native American voices are absent from many news stories.

Outside Business Journal tried repeatedly to contact outspoken Native American leaders and tribal members both for and against the monument, but with one exception, no one responded. One person cited distrust of the media when declining to speak.

Shortly after President Donald Trump signed an executive order demanding that the Department of the Interior review recently-established national monuments—while claiming that Bears Ears “should never have happened”—leaders of the Bears Ears Inter Tribal Coalition went to Washington, D.C. and held a press conference.

Leaders of tribal nations threatened to sue Trump if he tried to overthrow Bears Ears. They said the monument review was the latest in a long string of incidents in which the United States government reneged on promises to native people, and they demanded an audience with Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke.

Sure, a few tribal members have said publicly and in the news that they don’t want the monument, LoRenzo Bates, of the Navajo Nation Council, said during the press conference. But just as American citizens’ personal opinions do not reflect the positions of the U.S. federal government, a handful of tribal members cannot speak on behalf of their whole community.

“The Navajo Nation has a clear position on Bears Ears National Monument,” Bates says. “As indicated, there is unanimous support. But by cherrypicking a few Navajo people from San Juan County, you are undermining…the position of the Navajo government.”

The monument proposal “ensures that tribes will continue to be able to collect plants, firewood, and other traditional materials within the monument,” according to the USFS monument factsheet. It also states that the management plan for the monument, which has yet to be developed, will be drafted with the input of one elected officer from each of the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s five tribes.

But distrust of the government runs deep there. The population of San Juan County is roughly half Native American and half white, The New York Times reported recently in a story about Bears Ears, “but whites hold much of the political power. Navajo residents have spent more than 40 years suing the county over civil rights violations and fighting to get officials to pay for things like running water and rural schools in heavily native areas.”

In spite of those promises to ensure tribal members the right to collect materials within the monument’s boundaries, there is concern the government won’t keep its word, The New York Times writes.

Monument opponents have also voiced concern about looting of Native American cultural sites. Tom Adams called the monument designation “a giant neon sign” alerting visitors to the area, which he said still has no official management plan or new personnel to police it. He pointed to Grand Staircase Escalante, saying that instances of vandalism and artifact theft “grew by a phenomenal number” after the monument’s designation. (Though Ewing says he’s never seen such data, and that he’s only aware of a handful of looting incidents since the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante.)

An Alternative Solution

Though Utahans on both sides of the aisle universally agree that there is land worth protecting in the Bears Ears area, many feel Utah’s 36 million acres of public land is already too much. Wyoming and Alaska have both secured provisions within the Antiquities Act in the past which still exempt them from the Act’s power. Some monument opponents, including Paul Edwards, Chief of Staff for Governor Gary Herbert’s Office, think that Utah is about due for the same exemption, having paid its dues.

Neither Commissioner Pollock or Commissioner Adams is against protection of the land; rather, they’re uncomfortable with the principle of the thing, with a land mass they feel goes beyond the scope originally intended for the Antiquities Act. They’re also uneasy with a method of designation that didn’t follow a track through Congress and therefore may have ignored a number of local perspectives that never got their chance at the podium.

“My absolute opinion is that one man should not make this decision,” Pollock says.

Instead, Pollock and many of the monument’s opponents would like to see designation through legislation, an avenue they feel was skipped over.

The Legislative Stalemate

But there’s more to the story. For three years, Utah’s state representatives went back and forth with Congress on a bill called the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). In it, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, now one of Bears Ear’s biggest opponents, proposed a 1.4 million acre protected area with boundaries very similar to those currently in effect. While the Bears Ears Inter Tribal Coalition requested protection for a slightly enlarged 1.9-million-acre area, it was Bishop’s proposed boundary that the Obama administration favored when drawing the final lines.

This fact calls to question Bishop’s reasons for opposing the monument’s boundaries, says Alex Boian, VP of government affairs for OIA. Bishop did not respond to requests for comment.

Monument advocates also point out that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel visited Utah for several days to speak with locals and investigate the proposed site, and that the 300-person town of Bluff swelled to 1500 with the people who came to voice their concerns.

“They might not agree with the decision, but the idea that they weren’t heard is just inaccurate,” Boian says.

The problem was that after three years of discussion, all those voices were unable to join together into a single harmonious compromise. When Donald Trump won the presidency and it became clear that PLI was not going to pass congress in a way that was acceptable to both Congressman Bishop and the outdoor industry, OIA called upon President Obama to designate a monument. In OIA’s view, that designation was a last ditch effort to save the land in need of saving.

“This wasn’t our first choice,” Boian says. “We prefer legislation [over an executive order] because it allows representatives to debate the merits of a decision and better facilitates local input. That did become unviable in this case.”

The Outdoor Industry: An Overreaction?

As for the outdoor industry’s response to all this? The Outdoor Retailer show has currently put out an RFP and has started that it will not include Utah on that list as long as the state government opposes Bears Ears.

Tom Adams called this “an unsound business decision.” He pointed to Utah’s significant, but often ignored, actions to protect public land elsewhere in the state, citing recent pieces of legislation that will create two new state parks, give $5 million each year toward outdoor infrastructure grants for five years, build a trail system on the San Juan River, and allot $100 million toward active transportation as it relates to tourism and recreation.

Given these displays of loyalty toward public land, Tom Adams believes companies like Patagonia and Arc’Teryx, who are boycotting this year’s Salt Lake City OR Show have failed to consider the state as a whole.

But this isn’t just an isolated dispute in a small corner of Utah. Just as many monument opponents stand against the designation by principle, following their gut feeling that a unilateral designation of 1.4 million acres is just unfair, outdoor industry representatives are digging in their heels on principle as well. This has become a war on more than just on a patch of desert in Utah.

“Any threat to the Antiquities Act is a threat to the industry,” says OIA’s Alex Boian. “We would see any full-scale rollback [of Bears Ears] as not just devastating for the monument but a very clear gut of the Antiquities Act.”

Neither Patagonia nor Arc’Teryx responded to request for comments, but both have made similar statements.

Even Paul Edwards voiced concern about what precedent a full repeal of a monument might set and instead speculated that merely shrinking the monument’s borders might be a “pragmatic approach” and a “win-win” for both the environmental community and Utahans against the monument.

What’s Next for Bears Ears?

Locals depend on the sand and soil of Utah for their work, not just their play, and many worry for their livelihoods in the wake of the designation. All the Utahans interviewed also emphasized that they love their land as much as any visitor, and their concerns about the time it might take to develop a management plan are valid — it took Grand Staircase Escalante four years to get one, and the BLM in the Bears Ears area is understaffed and facing a maintenance backlog as it is. Worries about loving the land to death are certainly fair, especially when there are only two BLM law enforcement officers assigned to over a million acres.

Ewing says Friends of Cedar Mesa is bracing itself for increased visitation and, quite possibly, increased environmental impact. However, he says, the only way to increase the amount of resources devoted to protection and education in Bears Ears is to elevate its status.

“There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle and turning off the Google machine and sending all these visitors back the way they came,” he says. “Sure we might have to wait four years for a management plan, but in the long term, this [designation] is what’s going to protect this area, not just for the next four years but for the next generation.”

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