Biden's Executive Order is Monumental News for Bears Ears

January 23, 2021  |  Bears Ears National Monument

Excuse the play on words- us environmental types are experiencing some sudden onset bouts of giddiness right now.

As promised, President Biden got straight to work on Inauguration Day, signing a number of executive orders just hours after being sworn in and upholding several important campaign promises. Among them was the “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” This directive feels much like someone has finally pulled the emergency brake on a runaway train, after four long years of Trump and friends wreaking environmental havoc. It includes provisions to rejoin the Paris Accord, stop the long embattled Keystone XL pipeline, halt construction of the ecologically disastrous border wall, and puts a moratorium on plans to drill Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

You can read the order in its entirety HERE, but of important note in addition to the headline grabbing actions, the order seeks to set policy built on a foundation of environmental justice, and guided by science

“It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

Can we just pause for a second and appreciate how refreshing this is? To have leadership willing to embrace the elementary concept of belief in science? And finally, a prioritization of addressing the environmental disparities endured by low-income communities and people of color? Many of us were watching in dismay at this point four years ago as Trump immediately began appointing former lobbyists and industry henchmen intent on hamstringing the EPA; or at the anti-scientific, authoritarian and reckless move to scrub climate change information from government websites. Today we are rejoicing this contrast, as timelines so long overflowing with doom and gloom are suddenly filled instead with Amanda Gorman quotes and Bernie memes. (And while on the topic of contrasts, doesn’t the new White House Press Secretary seem just simply delightful? Sorry… giddy again.)

There is undoubtedly expansive work to be done to better protect our citizens and our planet- the order calls for review of more than 100 of Trump’s environmental rollbacks; and more is needed even beyond what is stated- including revocation of the Dakota Access Pipeline and reparations (environmental and cultural) for damage already caused by border wall construction- but this is a really good start. For the first in a very long time we have news of environmental policy that elicits hope instead of horror.

While I’m excited and relieved by all of this, the prospect of what it will likely mean for Bears Ears National Monument is deservedly getting a lot of attention, so I wanted to share a few photos and thoughts for anyone who is unfamiliar with the area, or curious about the controversy that surrounds it. The land that would come to be known as Bears Ears National Monument is found in a remote, sparsely populated part of southeastern Utah. (If you’re familiar with Moab or Arches National Park, Bears Ears is a couple hours south still from there.) It is a place of extreme, albeit rugged beauty, and profound cultural significance. Five indigenous tribes- the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni- share ancestral ties to the area and it remains a highly sacred place for these people to carry out religious and cultural practice still today.

A grassroots effort for federal protection in the region began decades ago and culminated when President Obama designated the national monument in 2016.

Trump, in unprecedented overreach and a politically motivated assault on the Antiquities Act, reduced the monument by 85% a year later. This removed protections from an area of 1.3 million acres, and the thousands of significant artifacts and cultural sites spread across this landscape within. Five now-consolidated lawsuits were filed by a coalition of tribes, environmental groups, NGO’s and the outdoor recreation industry, asserting that Trump had acted illegally. The verdict is still pending.

The reduction to Bears Ears came at the behest of Utah’s then governor, Gary Herbert, under a familiar refrain heard throughout the west. His plea echoed a complaint that national parks, monuments and BLM lands represent federal overreach, and that these areas should be placed instead under local control. Make no mistake, the common talking points often heard in such arguments are not coincidental- these come almost verbatim along with model plug-and-play legislation from entities such as ALEC, which is a deep pocketed conservative think tank pulling puppet strings (very firmly and willingly attached to Republican officials) often on behalf of powerful extractive industries. It’s all propaganda. Local (or state) control isn’t about delegating caretaking responsibilities to those who live in these places; the real motivation is reduction in protections and opportunities to cash in on mineral leases, which paves access for mining and drilling companies to come in a plunder our public lands. In Bears Ears, it’s likely uranium they’re after. Not too far away in Grand Staircase Escalante, it’s coal. All over the country- but out west especially where there is a far greater percentage of public land- industry and supporters push the same script, with that same goal in mind. In many ways, Bears Ears became kind of an epicenter in this and the battle to protect our public lands, and consequently also in testing the strength of the Antiquities Act. If Trump’s reduction were allowed to stand, it would have set a very dangerous precedent and put some of our most cherished places at risk.

For now it seems that threat has been averted. President Biden’s order includes review of the Utah monument reductions (Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was also cut nearly in half) and Rep. Deb Haaland, nominee for Secretary of the Interior, pending senate confirmation, will head this. Assuming her appointment goes through, Haaland will become the first Native American to serve in a cabinet post in U.S history. As Interior Secretary, Haaland will undoubtedly be receptive to tribal and environmental concerns and should almost assuredly recommend that these monuments be fully restored to original size. There is a possibility Bears Ears might even be expanded in the future, as Obama’s designation did not protect the full scope of what was originally requested by the coalition of tribes.

Predictably, Utah’s Republican leadership- including new Governor Spencer Cox, Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Congressional delegates and state officials, responded almost immediately with a joint statement condemning the order. They call again for “local control” and demand a voice in the process, stating…

“Roughly two-thirds of our backyard belongs to the federal government, which has meant that land management actions have often been done to us rather than with us. A review in name only with predetermined results, which ultimately leads to a unilateral executive order enlarging the monuments’ boundaries, will not solve the root of the problem and will only deepen divisions in this country.”

Screw them.

In 2017 Trump sent his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, on a mission to ‘review’ several national monuments. In regard to the Utah reviews, it was all a sham. Despite widespread public outcry, including local county commissioners and affiliated tribes which supported keeping Bears Ears intact, the monument was cut decisively. It was soon realized that the redrawn boundaries closely coincided with known mineral and gas deposits, and mirrored a map sent to the Interior Department from the office of Utah’s then-Senator Orrin Hatch a month before the supposed review even began. Reviews “in name only” didn’t seem to be a problem for them then.

Further, they can talk all they want about local input or healing in this country, but there is no integrity to such statements if they come from those consistently dismissive of Native voices. People whose ancestors have been there for thousands of years, and with whom reconciliation is long overdue. Or even the majority voice of Americans who believe we need to protect our public lands, and take serious action to address climate change. The sudden concern over ‘deepening divisions’ has a familiar ring, often repeated lately by those of a certain political affiliation (almost as if emanating from a common source… hmm.) The caution can also be interpreted as code for “upholding conservative, white control.” We do need unity in this country, but that doesn’t mean it’s not time to get to work righting a whole lot of wrongs.

I’ve been fortunate enough to make one visit to Bears Ears National Monument, in October of 2019, and was actually days away from leaving on a follow-up trip last spring. I had planned to photograph and further explore the area, specifically that which had been removed from monument protections, and was very eager to gain a more intimate knowledge of this place. But when the pandemic blew up I canceled those plans because I didn’t feel it was ethical to travel there. The time I had spent prior, however, made a deep and lasting impression. I was amazed by the abundance of human record, which chronicles a timeless interconnection of people and landscape. Everywhere, it seems, is rock art, relics of ancient dwellings, and shards of pottery resting in the very place it had once served someone’s daily life. You can still walk the same footpaths that people have for thousands of years. It was really incredible to experience. The natural beauty was stark and equally astounding; red rock canyon country in all its desolate yet haunting appeal. This is unmistakably hallowed ground. There is a spirit here that is felt if not seen- a wind that blows across all the land with whispers of the ancients. Those who would choose to parcel it off don’t get that, or don’t care to. It’s unfortunately not something everyone can understand; but that makes this work all the more urgent for those of us who do.

I remember while there being overwhelmed with that sense of urgency. I remember thinking that it was both a place where you can feel the presence of those who came before, and your responsibility to those who are still to come. This is a place that will have different meaning to different people. For the connected tribes it is sacred ground. For others it is a living history museum- an important piece of America’s pre-colonized heritage. Still more will find it a welcome retreat to the natural world. In any case it offers an experience that is exceedingly critical and endangered. We need to protect this.

The photos I am sharing here were all taken during my initial visit to Bears Ears, many in places that fell outside of the redrawn monument lines. I am deliberately careful in what information I post from this area, as I feel my responsibility here is to the spirit and protection of this land. With the proliferation of geo-tagging and social media inspired drive-by photography, it is imperative that we as professional nature and landscape photographers exercise caution in sharing sensitive locations that could risk being loved to death. Argument can, and has, been made in the same vein regarding monument designation. With this status, more visitors will come here and put increased pressure on culturally and ecologically vulnerable sites. It will be equally important that restoration of monument boundaries also comes with the necessary resources to adequately protect these treasures and their environment.

I will continue to learn and adapt to the best practices I can as far as what I put online, with respect to and consultation with tribal members and conservation groups, and following standards set by established photographers from the area. For now I will primarily only label locations as “Bears Ears” if sharing on social media, and as I explore further I’ll always be careful to avoid revealing specifics on lesser-known sites. My goal is to offer a glimpse of some of the many little pieces that make this place magical as a whole.

I also encourage and will continue to advocate that anyone who might visit here first take the time to educate themselves on proper etiquette and always practice leave no trace principles. However, the main reason that I am choosing to share these photos now is not to inspire visitation, but in the hope that it will help people understand how special Bears Ears truly is. Being originally from Iowa I have a largely Midwestern following with my photography, and while I know people aren’t going to jump in their cars and head west at the sight of these photos, I also know it could help to put a face to the name. The term “Bears Ears” has been in and out of the news for years, but I know that much of my audience back home has little context as to what it actually means. My hope is that I can share some of what I’ve seen- and felt, as I will be writing more of this experience in the coming weeks, and plan to visit again as soon as public health measures allow me to do so in a responsible and respectful manner- but I hope that through my lens I can help give others a reason to care. And to understand. To understand that this is a very special place; and to understand why restoring this national monument to its original tribe consulted footprint is a very, very big deal.

For more information on Bears Ears National Monument, the following organizations provide excellent resources:

Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Grand Canyon Trust

Friends of Cedar Mesa

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