The dramatic curtailing of public lands by 1.15 million acres of almost all Bear Ears is not only unprecedented in scope, but reduces a national monument to a vestige and place-name: the “ears” themselves, two buttes, are isolated on the new map, as they rise across the horizon line, but suddenly stripped from their territory, and isolated as if re-mapped by GPS, without any sense of their historical context for the indigenous peoples who lived there after having been chased off traditional homelands. In creating two vastly reduced “monuments” out of 15% of the region, which were how re-named Shásh Jaa’ and Indian Creek, at a pen-stroke, evacuates President Obama’s decision to use the American Antiquities Act to preserve the region rich with historical ruins and its future integrity. While the array of archeological artifacts, rock art, natural monuments and national forests were announced in the original 2016 proposal for uniting a region between the Ute Tribe and Navajo tribal lands in southeastern Utah, it was a coup in protecting historical lands that considered the integrity of the monument. The current debate is the most recent manifestation of a real struggle around question of the governance and the administrations of public lands. In posing to defend undefined “local interests” against intrusive government, repeating the Reagan-era mantra that they stand in opposition with one another, deny the radical remapping of public lands that the Trump administration has decided to advocate.
The rewriting of the national monument’s boundaries constitutes an undoing that cannot be seen as an adjustment of its perimeter, but a breaking up of its heart. The proposed monument encompassed not only archeological ruins and fragile ecosystem, but what had been alternately designated as a “special tar sands area” by the Bureau of Land Management, quite controversially, and had been promoted to locals as an “energy zone” at a time when many pristine environments–from particularly devastating areas in the coal mined in tar sands in the old-growth boreal forests in Alberta, whose devastation has been documented in aerial photographs of Canadian aerial photographer Louis Helbig,in images of the environmental degradation strip mining of bitumen brought to a once-pristine region. Despite the promise of poorly defined “Energy Zone” in Utah, bordering the Bears Ears monument, economic benefits that have been promoted since 2015 by Utah’s legislature conceals the steep environmental risks allowing such extractive industries, given the laborious and uneconomical process of coal and uranium mining would create, if protections on the state and federal lands are lifted across the protected region–which would compromise not only its National Conservation Areas but an invaluable archeological and cultural patrimony, and the integrity of the region that the National Monument worked to keep; the “new” boundaries open access to almost all the underground .mineral deposits in both of the Utah National Monuments named by two Democratic presidents, as if to let the energy industry know that a new regime is in town, allowing the opening up of old uranium mines that encircle the Bears Ears national monument.
The radical rewriting of the national monument into conservation areas peels back the bridging of area around the buttes and the unique public lands arrangement that had been arrived at with local interests over time, but stands in contrast with the gold-tinged layer that the Utah legislature adopted, with few real reasons, but with the endorsement of the American Petroleum Institute, helped identify a poorly mapped “Energy Zone” lying on the east of Highway 191 which would be “streamlined” for quick development by the energy industry. The gold layer served as a counterweight to the Public Lands Initiative that advocated the creation of a single national monument, developed by a supermajority of residents with the twenty-five native tribes whose deep ancestral relation to the land. The democratic process of local land preservation would be overturned by the plans for “energy development” without a clear vision of the permanent consequences of such development for the land, or the alteration of a landscape that is not only among the most pristine in the west but densest with memory.
“Energy Zone” Created by Utah State Legislature in June 2015
Is this a step in the war against the memories of the relation to the land? The hope to imagine the preservation of a region whose canyons, ridges, mesa and basins are rich with artifacts was evident in the proposal to create a counterpart to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the current proposed curtailment by GPS clips a historical landscape to two vestiges of what have become highly politicized federal lands. Yet the currently proposed fragmentation of what seemed a groundbreaking advance in the management of native lands–joining members from five tribes with members of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service, to recognize its identity as tribal lands and relation to a National Park–rejects a notion of land stewardship by resurrecting a battle between ‘locals’ and ‘big government.’ The “fake news” of such a loss of local interests would stand to permanently reconfigure the pristine open lands around the Four Corners region of the nation, in ways unable to be measured by the size of the original Monument, in ways disguised by debates about its boundary line. If all of these lands are–and will be–federal lands, the opening of these lands to federal leasing is what is at stake by the removing designation of the National Monuments, which would expose them to extractive industries. As the new boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante leave all coal in the region open to strip mining and extraction, and allow easier access to those areas lying just beyond the National Monument, the scaling back of both monuments seem to respond to directives of corporate lobbyists, from a uranium processing mill that sits outside Bears Ears to the American Petroleum Institute, representing firms who have purchased leases on sites within the monuments’ boundaries from the Bureau of Land Management, which did not evacuate them after the national monument was declared. The premium that the American Petroleum Institute places on the need to “recognize the importance of our nation’s energy infrastructure by restoring the rule of law in the permitting process” in the words of its CEO and President, Jack Gerard, prioritizes interests that were not addressed in hopes to rewrite the Bears Ears cultural landscape, and evacuate the conclusions of the local Public Lands Initiative (PLI) that resolved the many stakeholders’ interests in the pristine lands–and in the future of one of the largest open spaces in the American west. By recasting the monument’s creation as an act of “big government” that infringes on the land rights of local residents, the Secretary of the Interior has adopted the points of interest defined by extractive industries–the promise of oil; $11.4 billion tons of coal; and unspecified amounts of zirconium and uranium in the northeastern region of the Staircase Escalante–without the consultation of local tribes who hold the ancestral lands sacred, or indeed local communities. Indeed, the remapping of the region erases their historical significance, which it wipes from the map.