The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is urging the Biden administration to take “immediate action” to restore and expand the southern Utah monument.
The plea comes amid rumors that a reinstatement is imminent, fueled by Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s recommendation to President Joe Biden in June to restore the Bears Ears to its original size of 1.3 million acres.
“Each day that passes without national monument protection for numerous sacred sites and irreplaceable cultural resources risks desecration, looting, vandalism, and misinformed visitation to an area that contains the exact kind of antiquities that inspired the creation of the Antiquities Act,” reads a letter sent to Biden, obtained by the Washington Post.
The letter goes on to warn that artifacts within the site, “considered by us to be messages our ancestors meant for us to see and incorporate as lessons into our present, are literally being erased.”
The letter includes a “before” image of rock art from 2018 and an “after” image, taken in 2019 after vandals appeared to have smeared mud over it.
“Our patience is being further tested by the Bureau of Land Management ... and United States Forest Service ... joint managers of the reduced monument, which have both continued with an array of planning activities, while indicating an inability to work directly with the Coalition on management issues and planning activities until executive action is taken by you,” the letter reads.
Without an executive order, the coalition claims, both agencies are moving forward with plans to increase cattle grazing, motorized vehicle travel and camping, “undertaken without us being collaboratively engaged.”
The letter also warns that mining claims continue to be “located and developed” within the monument’s old boundary, posing “a serious and immediate threat to sacred sites, cultural resources, and other monument objects.”
Formed in 2015 with the goal of pressing former President Barack Obama to create a national monument over the southern Utah area rich in cultural significance, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is comprised of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni.
The monument was designated by Obama in the waning days of his presidency, then reduced to 228,000 acres, roughly 85% of its original size, in 2017 by former President Donald Trump.
The move spurred outcry from tribal nations and environmental groups, and praise from many Utah lawmakers who labeled the designation an example of federal overreach, and threw their support behind the Trump administration.
The Legislature’s stance, along with support from then-Gov. Gary Herbert, eventually led to the giant Outdoor Retailer shows ending their 20-year run in Salt Lake City.
Gov. Spencer Cox recently released a video asking the show to consider coming back to Utah. In April, the governor said Utah would likely sue if the Biden administration acted “unilaterally” to restore the monument to its original size, and that a “collaborative” approach was necessary.
But in the video, Cox suggested that he is now indeed collaborating with the Department of the Interior.
“We’re working with key stakeholders and the Department of the Interior to establish sustainable ways to manage Bears Ears National Monument and other cherished public lands,” Cox says in the video, after noting “we made some improvements while you’ve been away.”
In an emailed statement to the Deseret News on Tuesday, the governor’s spokeswoman Jennifer Napier-Pearce did not elaborate on any collaboration between Cox and the Department of the Interior, but did emphasize the governor’s preference toward a “legislative solution.”
“Gov. Cox has been consistent in voicing his strong preference for a legislative solution to monument boundaries. We continue to believe this is the best long-term plan for providing stability for our valued public lands and the local communities surrounding them,” she said.
Utah Lt. Gov. Deirdre Henderson told the Deseret News in September that Utah should have a seat at the table when the Department of the Interior makes decisions within the Beehive State’s borders.
“The most important thing is that management piece — Utah needs to have a say in the management of the state,” she said. “We have a lot of federal land and how its managed is really important and we want to have a say in that. No one cares about the land in the state of Utah more than Utahns do.”