President Barack Obama today declared a 1.35 million acre swath of iconic Utah desert as the new Bears Ears National Monument.
The declaration was immediately lauded by environmental organizations and loathed by opposition. The long-expected designation will restrict land uses while protecting environmental and cultural resources around San Juan County’s Cedar Mesa.
Obama said in a statement:
Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes. Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.
Following years of public input and various proposals to protect both of these areas, including legislation and a proposal from tribal governments in and around Utah, these monuments will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection. We also have worked to ensure that tribes and local communities can continue to access and benefit from these lands for generations to come.
The president also designated 300,000 acres in Nevada as Gold Butte National Monument. Like Bears Ears, Gold Butte contains archeological and sacred Native American sites.
A Controversial Monument
The designation has been a hot button, partisan issue in Utah politics. While it is generally agreed that the area should be protected, the method of protection has been contested.
Many environmental organizations and democrats support the National Monument designation.
Utah republicans largely opposed it. The designation closely aligns with the Public Lands Initiative constructed by Rep. Rob Bishop to protect some Utah lands while opening others to development. But Bishop and many other state and San Juan County leaders say the designation takes the decision away from local authorities, ignoring local concerns and perpetuating conflict over use of public lands.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes noted the monument is contrary to the wishes of some local residents.
“Nearly 70 percent of Utah is under federal management and control and 90 percent of our population lives on just 1 percent of our ground. Nothing about this is even remotely reasonable, and that is why we in the Utah Legislature have been pushing back for decades. This designation makes that effort even more important and we will do everything within our power to seek to overturn this action once President Obama leaves office next month.”
In contrast, Utah Democratic Party Chair Petere Corroon trumpeted support of Obama’s proclamation.
“We are proud of President Obama for recognizing the need to protect the spectacular natural and historic lands in the Bears Ears area. Utah leaders have deliberated for years regarding how to best preserve Bears Ears. When our GOP leaders failed to find a solution that prioritized protecting these cherished lands while showing respect for indigenous culture and traditions, an executive order became a last resort to preserve this amazing part of Utah’s landscape. This designation will only help grow our booming outdoor industry, bring more to Utah’s economy, and ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy Utah’s vast and beautiful landscape for many years.
Regardless of political leanings, it’s unlikely the designation will stand unchallenged. But for now, another spectacular American landscape will remain protected from development or extraction for the short-term future.