6 myths about the proposed Bears Ears National Monument

By Matthew Anderson

by Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute
by Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute

Misconceptions and rumors are circulating around the proposed designation of a Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Proponents of the monument have hurled unsubstantiated promises and propaganda at the people of Utah in an attempt to push through their agenda.

The Coalition for Self-Government in the West and Sutherland Institute examine here five such claims – attempting to sort out fact from fiction.

Fiction: The Utah Navajos living in San Juan County are pushing for a Bears Ears National Monument.

Fact: San Juan County Navajos do not want a national monument. In fact, they passed a resolution in November calling on the Navajo Nation to rescind its support for the designation and have been quite vocal in their opposition. These are the grassroots people who have used the land for generations and call the Bears Ears their home. What Native American support does exist for the monument comes largely from outside Utah – far removed from the land and the people who know it the best.

Fiction: You can count on national monuments to improve rural economies and strengthen communities.

Fact: While some areas have benefited from national monuments and parks, this is not always the case, and the people of San Juan County know it. Just to their west lies Garfield County, where President Bill Clinton designated the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. For the last 20 years Garfield County has attempted to fend off the economic hardships brought on by the designation. Residents have watched as grazing has been increasingly restricted, mineral resources sequestered in the ground, and other economic development blocked. Last summer the county finally was forced to declare an economic state of emergency. Diverse economies that rely on a variety of activities to support them tend to be more robust and durable than those that depend on only one or two sources of revenue. National monuments force neighboring communities to become almost solely dependent on tourism. While this model has worked for some communities, it is clearly not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Fiction: A national monument will not restrict Native Americans from their traditional uses of the land. They will still be able to collect medicinal herbs, cut wood, hunt, and perform religious ceremonies once the Bears Ears is designated.

Fact: While this condition is clearly expressed in the proposal put forward by the Inter-Tribal Coalition, there is no guarantee that the president’s final proclamation would include this provision. Environmental groups and other special interests may sway the president to deviate from this and restrict Native American access. In addition, land management practices do not always reflect federal policies. For example, despite grazing being expressly authorized and guaranteed in a number of presidential proclamations, ranchers across the West have seen a decline in the number of grazing livestock within national monuments. The promise of authorized grazing is kept, but not at historical levels or the rate that was promised. And in this case, Native Americans probably wouldn’t be permitted the same quality or level of access they have become accustomed to.

Fiction: A national monument will make the area more accessible to the public.

Fact: The management policies of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have provided the public a wide range of recreational opportunities on and around the Bears Ears for decades. If designated, a new national monument would carry with it new rules and regulations restricting recreational access. For example, while no roads would be closed by the Bears Ears’ designation itself, it would trigger a new travel management planning process. This process would provide federal agencies a mechanism to shut down roads and block recreational access. As has been done time and time again, miles of historical roadways could be closed and inaccessible to the public. National monuments are largely recognized as a stepping stone on the way to the creation of new national parks – a stepping stone that Utahns are all too familiar with. All but two of Utah’s national monuments have been re-designated. Once a national park is created, hunting, ATV riding, rock collecting, and a host of other recreational opportunities are prohibited.

Fiction: The cliff dwellings, rock art, prehistoric villages, and sacred sites of the Bears Ears lack sufficient protection. The designation of a national monument will bring additional management resources to stop looting and the desecration of these cultural resources.

Fact: From the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to the Antiquities Act, there are a number of federal laws protecting cultural and archaeological resources. The fines and punishments associated with breaking these laws would not change if a national monument were designated. Proponents of the designation argue that more resources would be available to enforce these laws if a monument were created. The simple fact is that federal land management agencies are strapped for cash and can’t afford the type of protection these advocates are pushing for. The National Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion – an amount five times that of its latest budget from Congress. This total consists of all the maintenance projects that were not completed on schedule and therefore have been put off or delayed. This backlog has led to difficulties including a leaky wastewater system dumping raw sewage into Yosemite’s streams and a “poor” or “seriously deficient” classification given to more than one-third of all trails in the entire park system. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service aren’t doing much better, as they have a combined backlog of almost $6 billion. Whether the Bears Ears is managed by one or a combination of these federal agencies, the enforcement promised by national monument advocates is not financially feasible. San Juan County Navajos already feel that these laws sufficiently protect sacred sites and artifacts. They believe that anything more is overkill and unnecessary to preserve the land they call sacred.

Fiction: Economic development, conservation, protection of cultural resources, and recreation cannot all coexist on public lands.

Fact: Land management doesn’t have to be seen in terms of winners and losers. The zero-sum economics that has permeated the thinking of extreme environmental groups – that one person’s gain must be explained by another’s loss – does not apply here. Millions upon millions of acres of federal and state lands are managed for multiple uses across the West, and the Bears Ears is no exception. This type of management considers the needs of rural communities while preserving archaeological sites and the environment for the enjoyment of future generations.

Matthew Anderson is a policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.

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