“What this country needs is a businessman for president,” says Gatewood, the banker in John Ford’s classic western, “Stagecoach” set in Monument Valley. He briskly leaves town with a satchel full of money stolen from his clients. Ford’s film was made in 1939. Nearly 80 years later, we indeed have a businessman for a president, and he, too, is stealing from his constituents, only it’s more than money. Donald J. Trump and his chief henchman, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, are robbing the American people of incomparable protected landscapes like Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in Utah.
This is a true crime story happening in real time right before our eyes. Conservation groups have denounced President Trump’s use of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to strip protections from these lands as not only unprecedented, but illegal. The Bears Intertribal Coalition has called it “an assault on Indian Sovereignty.”
For almost a decade, the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni had been calling for the protection of the Bears Ears area – 1.9 million acres of red rock canyons and mesas in the southeast corner of Utah – as a national monument. Maps were drawn from traditional knowledge, honoring the sacred nature of Bears Ears, two pinyon-juniper fringed mesas revered by Native People. These hallowed lands are where the bones of their ancestors are buried, where their medicine is found and collected from native plants, where their ceremonies are held. Local and national environmental groups became allies, as a majority of Utahns and American citizens supported this campaign to create a new national monument in the remote red rock desert of southern Utah.
The president said he was returning these lands to the American people. But these lands were already under our stewardship.
Their efforts paid off. On December 28, 2016, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation establishing the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. It was the first time in American history that western science agreed to join traditional knowledge in a cooperative management agreement between federal agencies and Native Peoples.
The agreement was short-lived.
Four months later, President Trump signed an executive order charging Interior Secretary Zinke to review all national monuments over 100,000 acres that had been established between 1996 and 2016. Out of the 27 monuments that met that criteria, six were seen as “too big” and recommended for dramatic reductions. Two of the six monuments were located in my home state of Utah.
On December 4, 2017, in the rotunda of the Utah State Capitol, flanked by Utah’s top Republican politicians, President Trump signed a new proclamation to gut Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, leaving two disconnected parcels and changing the monument’s name to “Shash Jaa,” privileging the Navajo language over the other tribes, and to slice Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in half.
The president said he was returning these lands to the American people. That was a lie – these lands were already under our stewardship. Our public lands are our public commons.
Two million acres of now-unprotected wild lands, where it is estimated that some 100,000 archeological sites belonging to pre-Puebloan people exist, are now open for business. Oil and gas leases within the released lands of the former monument can now be auctioned off in online sales; coal and uranium mining claims can be activated; and industrial tourism without the proper checks and balances can begin its assault on this fragile desert landscape.
As Natalie Landreth, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, points out, President Trump’s order opens these lands to “entry, location, selection, sale” and “disposition under all laws relating to mineral and geothermal leasing” and “location, entry and patent under mining laws.” What had been an honoring of Native People’s claims as sovereign nations has been turned into an open market for corporate claims for fossil fuel development. The long view of protection has been swapped for the short view of extraction. Open lands for the many are now open markets for the few.
“This is taking public lands that belong to the American people and selling to the highest bidder,” Landreth said. “There is just no other way to understand it.” The five tribes have filed a lawsuit against President Trump and federal agencies, as have national and local environmental groups and Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company.
If the courts rule that a president can shrink already designated monuments by proclamation, no national monument is safe.
Utah Congressman John Curtis, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would provide protections for archaeological sites in the areas President Trump stripped from Bears Ears. It also promises no new leasing for mineral development in those areas. But tribal leaders who oppose Trump’s action say the Curtis legislation is largely smoke and mirrors, providing little real protection; and because Congress indisputably retains authority to create national monuments, the bill, if passed, would nullify the tribes’ right to sue the federal government and render moot the other lawsuits defending Bears Ears.
Yet the rights of Indian sovereignty must be defended. The integrity of the Antiquities Act of 1906 must be upheld. No U.S. president has ever undertaken this kind of review of our national monuments. No U.S. president has ever reduced a national monument by this size, let alone two in the same state; four other national monuments are still at risk of reduction. A dangerous legal precedent could be set. If the courts rule that a president can shrink already designated monuments by proclamation, no national monument – from Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine to Muir Woods in California – is safe.
The story of Bears Ears National Monument is a story of power. The power of the land, the power of the federal government, the power of the Mormon Church (which dominates Utah politics), the power of the fossil fuel industry, and the power of Native People who have inhabited these lands for millennia.
When Senator Orrin Hatch held a news conference about Bears Ears shortly after Trump’s executive order last spring, he said, “The Indians they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or a wilderness.” Pressed by a journalist for an example, he replied, “Just take my word for it.“ In that moment, the patriarchy of Mormon Church was in full view.
I remember when the Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr. came to the University of Utah to speak in 1974. His topic, “Cultural Genocide.” He called out the Mormon Church’s Indian Placement Program as racist. This was a common practice among Mormon families whereby they would raise a Navajo or Ute child in their homes and “educate” the child in the ways of “The Spirit.” The program was encouraged and supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to “benefit their salvation.”
Deloria’s message was a knife slicing into my conscience: Shame on all of you within the LDS Church who think our people are better off in your homes than in their own homes with their own families. He said something about not needing our charity, but respect; not needing our culture, but their own. I heard him. His ire entered my bloodstream and traveled straight to my heart. I felt the pain of the oppressor, as one who had been taught to believe we were “a chosen people” and that I was right, and then, suddenly, came into an abrupt understanding that I was wrong.
It was only a matter of time until I left my home religion. But I have never left my home ground, or stopped loving the place and the people I come from.
In the blood-red shadows of Monument Valley that stretch across sage and sand, what endures is what is standing.
Recently, I visited with Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual adviser among the Dine’ (Navaho), a powerful leader in the conversation surrounding Bears Ears. He has become a friend I greatly admire and trust. In the blood-red shadows of Monument Valley that stretch across the sage and sand where buttes and buttresses rise as stone monuments that need no designation, what endures is what is standing – the iconic right and left mittens of Monument Valley, physical manifestations of geologic time that have been shaped and sculpted by wind and water. Allowing one’s eyes to scan the serrated horizon, one cannot help but be struck by our own insignificance in the face of this vast expanse of layered time. Humbled by a panoramic beauty indifferent and unsettling, I find myself on the edge of an unknowable spiritual power emanating from the land itself.
“Bears Ears is a sacred place for us,” Jonah reiterated. “Now, it is threatened. We have to go deeper.”
I keep thinking about what he might mean to go deeper and how this might set us on a very different course as a people rooted in a place called Utah, and for that matter all of us who live in America. Jonah has consistently said, “We are not just protecting Bears Ears for our people, but all people.”
I am tired of being told I am on the far side of left-leaning politics, that I am an environmental extremist, an eco-terrorist, an activist. I am tired of my own anger that is easily triggered and accessed by a Trump tweet or another act of aggression laid out by the Department of the Interior, such as opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling just because they can, even as fossil fuels are headed the way of the dinosaurs.
I don’t want to live in a binary world of either/or, rural or urban, politically correct or incorrect, or most damaging of all, segregated into a world of black or brown or white. We have all been diminished by this ongoing fight over wildlands in Utah. And in the case of Bears Ears, the people I know and love on both sides of this issue, those in favor of the monument and those who are not, those within my own family and those in my own community in alliance with the tribes – when we sit down and break bread together, what we all can agree on is that we love these lands and share a desire for a future that includes wild and reverent spaces where the wing beats of ravens register as prayers and the sweet smell of sage brings us back home.
We need to find a common language, alongside what binds us together, not what tears us apart. We need to have the hard conversations between neighbors and family and really listen to one another.
Perhaps Jonah’s call to go deeper is a call to acknowledge the power that resides in the earth itself, the organic intelligence inherent in deserts and forests, rivers and oceans, and all manner of species beyond our own. We cannot create wild nature, we can only destroy it — and in the end, in breathtaking acts of repentance, try to restore what we have thoughtlessly removed at our own expense, be it wolves or willows or cutthroat trout or these precious desert lands.
Bears Ears is a place of power. Anyone who has walked this erosional landscape of buttes and mesas and experienced the embrace of red rock canyons animated by the handprints of the ancient ones carefully placed on sandstone walls rising upward to a starlit sky cannot stand by and be witness to its demise by those who care only for what the land can produce, the real estate that can be sold, or the commodity it can become.
Utah’s red rock desert, as vulnerable as it now is, will survive us with or without presidential proclamations. But we may not survive without them.