In 1906 the United States Congress passed the Antiquities Act—legislature intended to prevent the looting of cultural artifacts, and allow the president to establish national landmarks and monuments to protect the resources contained within those spaces. One of the early acts of the Trump administration was to order the Interior Department to review the size and scope of national monuments larger than 100,000 acres created since 1996, bringing into question the conservation status a number of landmarked sites—and the validity of the Antiquities Act itself as a tool for conservation. This has placed the conservation status of many designated monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah, at risk. Critics maintain that Antiquities Act is outdated and unbalanced, heightening questions about who should make these decisions and who the decisions serve.

History has not recorded ire associated with the passage of the Antiquities Act, which would certainly not be the case if it were being lobbied for today but that doesn’t mean it was accepted without question, particularly by those looking to make their fortune in the yet unexplored and unclaimed land of the West. The bill was sponsored and shepherded through the House of Representatives and the Senate by Republican Congressman John F. Lacey, who wasn't a known troublemaker—he loved birds and was fascinated with pre-Columbian artifacts, which were innocuous enough hobbies. He was, however, known to be a strident defender of Yellowstone National Park against poachers and helped sponsor legislation about the trafficking of wildlife, fish, and plants. This is important to mention because it speaks to the absence of environmentalism and preservation-oriented thinking at the time. These laws would form the precedent for conservation. 

Roosevelt, who signed the Act into law, understood its potential particularly as America sought to expand westward,and used it almost immediately to create 18 monuments, including the Grand Canyon (which would later be converted to a National Park). That was the strength—and weakness—of the Act: It empowered the president to act without the consultation of Congress. Roosevelt ran afoul of a mining claimant and politician by the name of Ralph Henry Cameron who was using the General Mining Law of 1872 to hold a claim, and more importantly, charge tourists a dollar to pass through his mine into the Grand Canyon. Angered by the fee, travelers asked the Interior Department to investigate. They found that he had no claim and sued him. He maintained that the President had no authority to designate the monument. In Cameron v United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Grand Canyon was an object of scientific interest which solidified presidential power in these assignments.

Since Roosevelt all but four presidents—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush—have used the Act to enlarge or dedicate new national monuments. President Obama invoked the Act to create 26 new monuments, the most of any president, which included the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah at the end of his term.

Bears Ears takes its name from parallel buttes that stretch into the sky in San Juan county in southeastern Utah. The monument originally encompassed 1.3 million acres of the surrounding area. Obama may have signed the paperwork, but Bears Ears was the labor of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC) and Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB). The former is an extension of the Five Sovereign Nations of the region—the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute—which formed to protect Bears Ears. It functions as representation of the sovereignty and leadership for the each of the five Tribes. It is referred to as an "arm-of-the-tribe." UDB is a grassroots, non-profit organization that provides support to the local Indigenous communities in the form of tools, training, and technical support. They are responsible for the mapping of the Bears Ears area to determine its reach. This included oral histories and their own experience with the area.

BEITC drafted the proposal to President Obama to have the area designated as a protected site. This action came after years of attempting to work with local stakeholders and politicians and failing to agree on the boundaries for the site. The coalition worked because: 

  • It was guided by local people.
  • It was data driven and used the tools of the government—it's difficult to ignore a map. As Angelo Baca said following the presentation of the Utah Diné Bikéyah to the United Nations earlier this year: "[It was] only real to the Fed if it was on a spreadsheet."
  • The sovereign nations were able to a focus on a unity of purpose versus their inter-tribal issues. They tackled and acknowledged those head-on, but prioritized the advocacy of Bears Ears.

Obama’s approval made this the first national monument to grow out of the thinking, study, support, and political power of First People nations. However, Bears Ears was reduced by President Trump to 201,876 acres—85% of the original designation which leaves much exposed to looting and destruction. Citing abuse of the Antiquities Act, the position of the Trump Administration has been that prior presidents have acted too indiscriminately, that the Act was meant to apply to the smallest footprint possible, and only to objects—not trees or rivers or bison or people. The administration argues that these decisions should fall to local people, which would be admirable except that the local people it emphasizes are local lawmakers and commercial enterprises, and not the Indigenous populations who may have a large stake in these decisions. The underlying argument for removing the protections is still linked to expansion but now it takes the form of energy pursuits. Energy Fuels, which already had a mine in the area, now has permission to expand operations at their uranium and vanadium sites.

Bears Ears has tremendous cultural significance. The region has figured prominently in the history of the Native peoples of the area. It is home to over 100,000 Native American sites, including numerous burial grounds and petroglyphs. In the 19th-century, Navajo leaders hid from forced relocation efforts in the nearby canyons. While there are a few instances of presidents revising the monuments created before them—Woodrow Wilson cut more than 600,000 acres from Mt. Olympus National Monument to provide wood to support the war effort, and placate the timber industry, which had opposed the monument—the magnitude of Trump's review and decision on Bears Ears is unprecedented. There are lawsuits pending from BEITC and environmental groups. The fate of Bears Ears will fall to the courts, and with it the Antiquities Act. Bears Ears has demonstrated the ways in which the First Nations can leverage legal precedent to help attain their claims for land stewardship. It amplified their voices. Time will tell but it may be difficult to erase this legacy entirely.

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This article was updated to reflect a differentiation between BEITC and UDB, which are two separate organizations.


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