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A Battle Over 1.9M Acres: Inside the Fight for Bears Ears

5 tribes want to see the land made a national monument
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 6, 2016 10:48 AM CDT
A Battle Over 1.9M Acres: Inside the Fight for Bears Ears
This photo taken Aug. 12, 2000, shows Utah State Route 261 heading north across Cedar Mesa toward Bears Ears in San Juan County, west of Monticello, Utah.   (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

A May poll of 500 registered Utah voters found 68% of them hadn't heard about the Bears Ears proposal—an effort by members of five Native American tribes to preserve 1.9 million acres of ancestral land in southern Utah. Should you count yourself in the know-nothing group, a primer on the contentious proposal and the latest developments:

  • First, from the horse's mouth, an explainer of what the tribes are seeking: The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition wants the land—"a place where tribal traditional leaders and medicine people go to conduct ceremonies, collect herbs ... and practice healing rituals stemming from time immemorial"—designated a national monument. It notes the land is federally owned and jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and National Park Service.
  • In a January op-ed in support of the effort, Bruce Babbitt at the Los Angeles Times points out that the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Zuni tribal members "are not demanding return" of the land, but they want it protected from off-road vehicles and looters of archaeological sites, as well as want access granted to them, something "miners and ranchers have at times denied."
  • Babbitt explains that after five years of talks on the local level went nowhere, the tribes in October asked President Obama to use the power granted to him under the 1906 Antiquities Act to make the land a national monument (and a novel one at that, which Babbitt explains here).

  • Utah Public Radio reports Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Orinn Hatch are opposed to the plan, as are the state Senate and House of Representatives, which in mid-May "overwhelmingly passed" this legislation.
  • The Washington Post provides some context: "In a state where the federal government owns 65% of the land, many conservatives already resent existing restrictions because they bar development that could generate additional revenue."
  • It's not just the legislature in opposition. The Salt Lake Tribune reports some Navajos oppose the plan, saying the designation would actually compromise their ability to use the land. The coalition says that's not so.
  • And then things get weird: The Guardian reports forged letters purporting to be from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell have been tacked up at places like gas stations in tribal lands. The fliers claim the government intends to shrink the size of the Navajo reservation by 4 million acres.
  • The Post notes that some Utah lawmakers have suggested that if Obama makes the designation, an armed conflict like the Malheur one could arise.
  • This celeb wants to see Bears Ears happen.
  • This in-depth piece at High Country News explains what's behind the name "Bears Ears" and gives a thorough recap of the area's history—beginning in 1000BC.
(More Utah stories.)

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