Haaland visits Bears Ears

A historic moment

This week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited southeastern Utah in order to “listen” and to “learn” about Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The visit, which included meetings with tribal leaders, the Utah congressional delegation, and local and state elected officials was part of the Biden administration’s review of the monuments, which were shrunken dramatically by the Trump administration. 

A cynic might see the visit as political theatre, and there was some of that. But that shouldn’t take away from the historical significance of the Bears Ears visit. Here was the first Indigenous person to serve as secretary of the Interior, traveling through the first national monument to be conceived of and proposed and fought for by five tribal nations with deep roots in the land in question. And Haaland, herself, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, also has ancestral ties to the region. 

(Much has been written about these ties, but for a quick overview I strongly recommend this piece by Lyle Balenquah, a Hopi archaeologist and artist. He’s talking about Hopi connections, in particular, but the ideas extend to the Pueblo people, in general. And here’s another about ties to Grand Staircase-Escalante.)

Unfortunately, that deeper significance is often lost amid the political posturing and squabbling over the monument, “land grabs,” “local control,” the extent of the Antiquities Act, and the like. It is lost among the overblown assertions that a battalion of drill rigs will descend upon the Bears Ears, themselves, without a monument and, similarly, that the place will suddenly be thronged with millions of visitors, a la Zion National Park, as soon as it becomes a monument. I’m not going to rehash all of that now (for more of my thoughts read The Meaning of Monuments, the Mega-monument that Almost Was, and this piece on Industrial-scale Tourism). 

Instead, I’m going to ask that everyone slow down, forget about these arguments for or against monument designation, and consider the meaning of this moment in which five sovereign tribal nations—some of whom were historically at odds with one another—saw that their ancestral homeland and their culture was threatened, came together, and over the course of years formulated a proposal that could not only protect some of that culture, but also maybe give the tribes a little more say over how it is managed and interpreted. That is a big deal no matter how this all turns out.

Given the historic meaning, I really wanted to report on Haaland’s visit in person. But I hadn’t quite got my thirty-two year old car up and running, yet, and I couldn’t quite make it (Don’t worry, the Silver Bullet is back!). Fortunately, there were some great journalists on the ground sending out dispatches, including Zak Podmore from the Salt Lake Tribune

And K. Sophie Will from the St. George Spectrum.

From those dispatches I gather that it was sort of a mini-version of then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s 2016 visit to the area in advance of monument designation. As was the case last time, there were people from both anti-monument and pro-monument factions present, some holding signs, others debating with one another. But instead of thousands of people, this time there were only dozens. Some of the anti-monument protestors took the opportunity also to protest mask-mandates and other pandemic-avoidance rules. 

Tribal leaders such as Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez urged Haaland not only to restore the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, but also to expand it by another 600,000 acres to match up with the original Inter-tribal Coalition proposal. Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox asked Haaland to hold off on any such moves until Congress can come up with a permanent solution. 

Yet Cox’s plea ignores the fact that Congress has the power to alter the boundaries of the monument, regardless of whether Biden restores them now or later. It also doesn’t take into account the urgency of the situation: The entire Bears Ears area has been inundated with visitors over the last couple of years and the impacts are piling up. Expanding the boundaries won’t stop the influx. Yet, along with a management plan crafted with ample tribal input, it would give federal officials more resources to mitigate the effects and get a handle on things. 

Haaland is visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument today.

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