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Bear Ears

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo


Will Obama designate a remote corner of Utah as America’s next national monument?


Just before President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory on November 8, a lonely and sun-scorched corner of southeast Utah—where mesas outnumber people and Ancestral Pueblo pictographs adorn the sandstone—was poised to become America’s newest national monument. Now, President Barack Obama must decide if it’s still worth the political capital to try to protect it.


Known as Bear Ears for the pair of purple buttes at the region’s center, the proposed 1.9 million-acre monument would preserve a photographer’s checklist of high-desert drama: spires, bridges, canyons. Yet the region’s true distinction is not its topography, but its cultural significance; perhaps no place in America is as rich with ancient Native American sites as Bear Ears.


In October 2015, a coalition of five Indian nations, including the Hopi, Ute, and Navajo, formally proposed the monument, attempting to preserve the parcel’s 100,000 archeological sites from ongoing looting and grave robbing. Last June, in a letter to President Obama, more than 700 archeologists endorsed the proposal, saying that looting of the area's many ancient kivas and dwellings was continuing “at an alarming pace” and calling Bear Ears “America’s most significant unprotected cultural landscape.”


Yet in a state where the federal government already owns 65 percent of the land, many state lawmakers oppose what they consider further federal overreach. In May, Utah’s Republican-controlled legislature drafted a resolution that challenged the president’s legal authority to create the monument. (One lawmaker later attributed the rampant looting to badgers). And in September, the state’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Orin Hatch and Mike Lee, attempted their own maneuvering in Washington, co-sponsoring a bill they called the “Utah National Monument Parity Act.” That bill would exempt Utah from any future presidential declarations of national monuments.


These legislative roadblocks may be too little, too late. An August survey commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that 55 percent of Utahns are in favor of protecting the Bear Ears area as a national monument. According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told Utah Governor Gary Herbert in September that she feels an "urgent" need to protect Bear Ears. And in late summer, President Obama—who had already designated more national monuments than any other president—further solidified his environmental legacy by expanding or creating three more.


Then came the surprise election of Trump—a global warming skeptic who has promised to unravel Obama’s Climate Action Plan, resurrect the coal industry, and “cancel” America’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement. While Obama still has the legal authority to create Bear Ears with the swipe of his pen, the incoming Trump administration, along with the Republican-controlled congress, could mount a legal challenge against that designation.


A representative from the Department of the Interior declined to speculate on whether Obama would still use executive authority to create the monument, or on what policies the incoming Trump administration might seek to challenge. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.


Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation-focused non-profit, was more forthcoming. “Had Clinton won the election I would have had little doubt that a monument would be declared to protect the Bears Ears cultural landscape,” Ewing said in an email exchange. “Obviously, with the Trump election, the political dynamics in D.C. have changed.”


“[...] There's no precedent for a president ‘undoing’ a monument created by another president,” Ewing continued. “There is some precedent for shrinking the size of a monument. But in this case, there's no possible argument you could make that you can protect the archaeology of the area with a smaller monument.”


Monument supporters like Ewing point out that scientists have called for protection of the Bear Ears area for more than 113 years. But given Republican opposition to Obama’s environmental agenda, advocates for preserving this high-desert haven—the kind of place Edward Abbey, the desert romantic and lover of Southeast Utah, referred to as “a great vast aching vacancy of pure space”—may have to keep waiting.