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Obama Could Still Make Bears Ears A Monument

Laurel Morales
Navajo tribal member Jonah Yellowman picks up a pottery shard from the red dirt near Bears Ears.

In his last days in office President Barack Obama still has the power to make significant changes to the Southwest.

Obama has already used the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate 27 national monuments — more than any other president. And many American Indian tribes are hoping he takes action on at least one more proposal.

Some of the geological formations in the Southwest look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, and Bears Ears is one of those places.

It’s a pair of buttes, or steep hills, that emerge from the ground in southern Utah. They’re covered on one side by a ponderosa pine forest and the other by scrubby piňon-juniper trees.

“It’s a very sacred place,” Navajo elder Jonah Yellowman said on a recent visit. “Leave it the way it is!”

Yellowman, who lives in Monument Valley, holds the branch of a juniper tree as if he’s shaking hands with it.

“We talk to these trees,” Yellowman said. “When the breeze comes through they talk to us. Sometimes when you’re by yourself you can feel something over here. You can hear something sometimes you look over there.”

At the end of a windy unmarked trail Yellowman picked up a piece of Anasazi pottery laying on the ground.

As you walk around you’ll find something everywhere,” he said.

Bears Ears is rich with such artifacts.

Leaders from several tribes have asked President Obama to protect them from looting, mining and off-trail vehicles. They’d like Obama to set aside 1.9 million acres as monument land.

Zuni farmer and A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center Director Jim Enote said Bears Ears contains a library of knowledge.

“Bears Ears helps us to connect the dots of our history and our ancestors’ experiences,” Enote said. “And those places, those homes or those shrines and altars that when they were built they were consecrated. And once they were consecrated they were consecrated for life.”

On one of his visits to Bears Ears Enote came across an old village where he made offerings, much like people would at a cemetery with flowers. Then he noticed someone had carved into the petroglyphs and dug into a dwelling wall.

“How could anybody do something like that?” Enote said. “We wouldn’t do that at a cemetery, of course not. If people are able to respect places like cemeteries, or war memorials, or war battlefields, places that are sacred to many people, why can’t they afford us the same kind of respect and civility?”

Angela Hurst can see Bears Ears from her yard in Blanding 40 miles away.

“It is a sacred place,” Hurst said. “It’s sacred to all of us. That’s it right there. We see it everyday. It’s part of our home.”

Hurst and many of her neighbors don’t want a monument.

Blanding is already surrounded by federal land. Hurst grew up in Blanding picnicking at Bears Ears almost every weekend. Her family also owns land included in the monument proposal.

“I’m afraid that making it a monument takes it away from us, makes it so much less accessible to the regular people,” Hurst said.

Under the monument proposal people would still be able to picnic, collect firewood, hunt and graze their animals with permits.

But San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said he and other local leaders should be the ones to manage it, not the federal government.

“I’ve never tried to exceed my defined authority,” Lyman said. “And I wish the federal government could say the same thing because they are constantly pushing the bounds of their jurisdiction, their authority, their legal reach.”

Lyman could get his wish in January, if the Republican-controlled Congress has their way.

University of California Hastings Professor Emeritus John Leshy said many have tried to gut the Antiquities Act. 

“The Republican Party has tried to change the law, to repeal it, to exempt their states from it, do all sorts of things been countless proposals to do that over the last 25 years,” Lesy said. “They’ve never made it out of the Congress. But now we have a whole different landscape.”

Utah Republican Congressional leaders have proposed smaller protections for the land. They said putting Bears Ears on the map as a monument would draw the same problems tribal leaders are trying to prevent.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect President Barack Obama has already designated 27 national monuments.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.