Five tribes with historic connections to Bears Ears National Monument will co-manage the park with the federal government under a new partnership announced this month.
A signing ceremony on June 18 celebrated a pivotal land management agreement between the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and tribal officials. It brings together the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission.
The event took place along Utah’s Highway 261 with the backdrop of a new sign including the insignias of the five tribes. The agreement includes the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Weeminuche (Ute Mountain Ute), Ute Indian of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni.
The signed document of cooperation “formally recognizes [the parties’] strong working relationship.”
“We are being asked to apply our traditional knowledge to both the natural and human-caused ecological challenges, drought, erosion, visitation, etc.,” said Carleton Bowekaty, Bears Ears Commission co-chair and lieutenant governor of Zuni Pueblo.
The agreement stands in harsh contrast to the federal government’s destructive history with Native Americans. Many of the country’s national parks include sacred areas for the tribes — and were often their original homelands. Yellowstone became the nation’s first national park after the government forcibly removed its inhabitants in the late 1800s.
In the case of Bears Ears in Southeast Utah, Native Americans had lived on its lands for at least 13,000 years.
The park has only existed since President Barack Obama established it in 2016. Yet it has seen a fraught political battle over subsequent administrations. The park was named for tall buttes resembling a bear’s head, and the initial proclamation of the park acknowledged its significance to Indigenous tribes.
Just a year later, President Donald Trump took away 85% of the park’s lands, or 1.1 million acres. A group of tribes soon sued President Trump to reverse the decision. In 2021, President Joe Biden restored the park to its original boundaries.
A New Movement and Joint Management
Now, the movement to share control of the national parks with Native Americans has gained momentum. The Atlantic published a cover story in 2021 titled “Return the National Parks to the Tribes.” Under Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland became the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary and has vowed to improve the government’s relationship with tribes.
The agreement for joint management of Bears Ears represents an important step. The five tribes will submit a land management plan for the park in coming weeks. The government will then incorporate those recommendations into its own plan.
To support that process, the BLM and USFS will provide resources to each of the five nations.
“This type of true co-management will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning.