Monumental Worries: A Rift over Land Rights in the Wild(ish) West
If you were to drive from New Haven to San Juan County, Utah, it would take you more than a day and a half, not including stops. Even if you were to fly into Salt Lake City International Airport, almost six hours of driving would separate Utah’s bustling urban core from your remote destination. The largest county in Utah, San Juan spans diagonally across the state’s southeastern corner like a dog-eared page laid flat in a long-forgotten book.
In the heart of San Juan, a landscape defined by its rust-toned earth and sparse vegetation, a surprisingly dense forest endures. In satellite images, this stretch of trees looks like a dark green stain. Two parallel rocky buttes ascend from this verdant blotch, so conspicuous and prototypical that their names in each of the region’s indigenous languages all share the same English translation: Bears Ears.
Few people outside of Utah and the surrounding tribal nations had heard of Bears Ears until three years ago. In October of 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a partnership of representatives from five local Native American nations, approached then-President Barack Obama with a proposal calling for the buttes and the surrounding 1.9 million acres of land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management to be proclaimed a national monument. The area is rich in paleontological resources, Native American petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and artifacts. The Coalition’s proposal cited the “deplorable acts” of looting and grave robbery as some of the chief motivations for protecting the land, stating that looters “defile the past and wound the present, which for us is so directly connected to the past.” The Coalition also wanted to limit future development on the land, including uranium mining, which the proposal states has previously resulted in “many illnesses and deaths of Indian people.”
In December 2016, Obama accepted a modified plan that included approximately 1.3 million acres, two-thirds of the area requested by the original proposal. Overnight, Bears Ears became both a national monument and a political flashpoint. To Republicans, the designation was a desperate land grab in the twilight of Obama’s presidency, an egregious case of federal overreach. But to Democrats, the monument, as the first to be governed in part by an inter-tribal commission, was a resounding victory for conservation and indigenous land rights.
If it was a victory, it was short-lived. Last December, President Donald Trump cleaved Bears Ears into two much smaller monuments: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa. The cuts amount to a drastic 85 percent reduction in the monument’s acreage. (The rest of the land will remain under the care of the Bureau of Land Management.) This decision is being challenged in several lawsuits, and Trump has ensured that this rugged expanse of terrain will linger in the national dialogue about public lands for the foreseeable future.
But how did local residents react to the Bears Ears designation? The Politic interviewed several Utahns, all but one from the San Juan area. Efforts were made to contact Native American residents of San Juan County, but none was successful.
The backgrounds of those The Politic interviewed vary from mortgage lender to fifth-generation rancher, newspaper publisher to retired schoolteacher, and county commissioner to Yale sophomore. Most were opposed to the initial monument designation, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
The first time I called Bruce Adams, the cattleman who chairs San Juan County’s Board of Commissioners, I had a hard time getting a hold of him. After an awkward exchange with his receptionist and several dropped calls, I finally reached him on his cellphone. Adams’ family has lived in San Juan County and raised cattle there for five generations. Part of his inheritance, it seems, is a deep fondness for stewardship.
“We learned how to be respectful around the land,” Adams told me.
As a commissioner, Adams is fiercely defensive of his constituents’ character. He maintained that the looters ransacking Native American sites near Bears Ears were not San Juan locals, but rather out-of-towners seeking to cash in on county and tribal resources.
But Adams also faces his own challenges related to Bears Ears. Ranchers like him rely heavily on public lands for grazing, and while the initial monument designation did not explicitly forbid grazing, He had reason to be suspicious of future policy changes.
As ranchers near Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument about 100 miles west of Bears Ears, told St. George News, that monument’s creation in 1996 did not technically ban grazing—but restrictions on temporary land modifications made grazing much less efficient and less profitable. Adams was concerned that history might repeat itself with Bears Ears.
Ranchers are not the only San Juan residents with strong opinions about the monument. Janet Wilcox and her husband, both transplants from Idaho, relocated to the San Juan area in 1970. Wilcox and her family adore the county’s harsh natural beauty, but all but one of Wilcox’s eight children have moved away in search of stable employment.
The controversy surrounding the national monument designation, which Wilcox opposed, has raised the profile of Bears Ears and will likely attract more tourists in the future. For Wilcox and many other San Juan residents, the nearby city of Moab, Utah provides a cautionary tale.
Moab serves as the gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Its proximity to those recreational focal points has made the local economy heavily dependent on the seasonal tourism, hotel, and restaurant industries, restricting long-term job opportunities for the city’s more than 5,000 residents.
“We do not want to be another Moab!” Wilcox told The Politic in an email.
Bill Boyle, a San Juan resident for the last forty years, echoed Wilcox’s sentiments. Boyle serves as the editor and publisher of the local newspaper, The San Juan Record, whose website header speaks to the cultural scene of the county itself: In a detailed drawing, a cowboy rides a horse in the foreground, while behind him is a large yet faded indigenous petroglyph. It is almost too on-the-nose.
When I asked him about his relationship with the land in Bears Ears, Boyle spoke with reverence. “It’s everything. It’s the background to my life, and it’s where I go to seek solace,” he told me. But he thought the monument designation was counterproductive.
Like Wilcox, Boyle sees a sudden ingress of out-of-state visitors as bringing more harm than good. While he agreed that the land should be open to the wider public, he argued that county resources are being spent on the consequences of increased visitation, such as searching for lost tourists. He also expressed concerns about the impact of uninformed visitors—who may not recognize how sacred the area is to the region’s tribal nations—on Bears Ears’ natural allure.
“The land is being loved to death,” he said.
For mortgage lender Britt Barton, tourism is a mixed bag. Barton is the manager of Primary Residential Mortgage, Inc.’s Blanding, Utah division. He said he would enjoy seeing more tourism in San Juan County, as a healthier tourist economy would attract more homebuyers. But he also believes a diversified economy is leagues better than one dependent only on outside visitors.
“We’ve seen challenges, particularly in Grand County [which includes Moab] with such a one-sided economy when it comes to tourism, that the real estate market has priced itself out,” Barton told The Politic in an interview.
“There are plenty of jobs to be had, but no one can afford to live there,” he said.
Barton grew up in San Juan County and became familiar with Bears Ears as a Boy Scout. He often went hunting and horseback riding there with his father, and his family hosted reunions on Elk Ridge, an area Trump removed from the monument in his December announcement. Barton worries that even if the size reduction stands up in court, the monument designation will still bring harm to the pristine land.
“By putting [Bears Ears] on the map…[monument supporters] create the very problem they were trying to protect it from, which is damage from overuse,” Barton said.
Not all Utahns were opposed to the initial monument designation. Marcelina Kubica ’20, has lived in Ogden, just north of Salt Lake City, for almost her entire life, and her family often travels in and around the Bears Ears area to explore the arresting terrain. Her love for the landscape is palpable.
“[The land is] part of who I am and who I want to be. Part of my story and the reason I love living,” she told The Politic in an email.
An avid hiker and backpacker, Kubica’s relationship with the land is purely recreational. She said she wants to “engage with the beautiful environment throughout [her] life,” so she was disheartened by the Trump administration’s cuts to Bears Ears. She hopes that, even without the formal designation, the land will continue to be responsibly maintained by San Juan locals.
She also believes that recreation should not be the focus of the dialogue surrounding public land use in Utah.
“I believe the central point of the conversation should be recognizing the history of these public lands and the people who lived on/with them long before the U.S. government showed up,” she said, referring to the importance of Bears Ears to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute tribes.
Kubica thinks that non-Utahns often misunderstand the history behind Bears Ears and other public lands. Monument advocates and opponents have struggled with questions of Native American land claims, the ability of public lands to protect heritage, and the economic ramifications of conservation. These questions extend two thousands miles to Yale’s own campus, which once was part of the Quiripi tribes’ territory. The fight over Bears Ears may seem remote to us, but the question of how native land and history should be preserved could not be any closer.