Bears Ears In Jeopardy

Hiking shoes in my luggage are a gentle reminder. Get some exercise when traveling, preferably outside. Truthfully, after 4 glasses of red wine the night before and a sumptuous meal of duck confit egg rolls, assorted cheeses and a pork/chicken paella it was all I could do to get out of bed. It should be said that despite my robust physical appearance, I’m a devout glutton. As much as I enjoy spending time in the outdoors I often do so grudgingly, as I struggle with a simple yet unassailable truth: My health and well being are dependent upon regular activity in nature.

On this particular morning in Washington D.C. I had every intension of going for a hike in advance of a 10AM meeting at the U.S. Department of the Interior. A system of trails near my hotel, not far from the National Cathedral, promised a 3-mile trek along a wooded path through Dumbarton Oaks Park. The trail winds behind the embassies of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Denmark and Italy. But at 7:AM as I was lacing up my shoes I received a general text message inviting me to attend a planning meeting over breakfast. “Anyone who wants to share an Uber,” the message read, “meet in the lobby at 7:30.” So much for my hike.

As member of the Next 100 Coaltion I work with environmental activists from across the country. Our purpose is to encourage everyone, particular those more reluctant that I, to spend time in the nature. As that population includes a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups,  most of our work is especially meant to engage people of color. After several years of working successfully with the administration of Barack Obama, my colleagues and I were able to make a solid case for the importance of environmental protection and the inclusion of an emerging, more racially diverse generation of young people who will one day be the stewards of our natural resources.

It is our hope that we can continue our efforts under the leadership of the Donald Trump Administration and his new DOI Secretary Ryan Zenke. Our intentions for visiting Washington on this lovely day in June was to introduce the Coalition to the new administration as a practical resource of information and expertise to achieve the laudable goals of diversity and inclusion in the management and interpretation of our public land.

The meeting with DOI Deputy Director of External Affairs Timothy Williams was of course congenial. These little get-togethers on Capitol Hill are typically very civil affairs. In our first encounter with an appointee of the Trump Administration I was immediately impressed by his sincere desire to do his best in the service of the American people. But as we discussed the now controversial National Monument review I found it odd when Williams, a former Las Vegas real estate developer, said unequivocally that, “No one in Utah cares about Bears Ears.”

I’m hardly one to suggest that my opinion is always the correct one. Heaven knows the conclusions I draw, even those rooted in observation, research and skeptical analysis, are riddled with doubt. As a human being I am naturally swayed by the influences of personal bias. But as a journalist I am more profoundly affected by beliefs derived from a clear understanding of as many different perspectives as possible. Mr. Williams, it seemed, was missing something.

The Bears Ears National Monument was established in 2016 at the end of the Obama Administration. After many years of public debate and discussion, beginning formally in 2009, 1.3 million acres of federally protected land was set aside under the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The National Monument designation was meant to preserve the ancestral heritage sites of First Nation tribes who had made their home in what are now the states Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico for millennia. Despite Williams’ assertions, there are indeed tens of thousands of people in Utah and throughout much of the nation who care about Bears Ears.

Most, like me, who have never visited the monument, are merely curious. But those who live in the area have a vested interest in the conscientious management of the land and its resources. As a practical matter, the direct involvement of Utahans who reside nearby in San Juan County, is naturally among the ways to determine the status of Bears Ears and exactly how it will be used in the future. Secretary Zenke recently paid a visit to southeastern Utah to help guide his decision making process. But despite  claims of interest in a comprehensive assessment, the DOI head failed to connect with those who stand the most to loose should the monument be put in jeopardy.

Mark Maryboy

“He spent less than one hour with Native Americans and spent more time with the state legislature, the local county commissioner, state senators, Congressman Chaffetz , Senator Hatch and Senator Lee,” said Mark Maryboy a former Navajo Nation Council Delegate for the Utah Navajo Section of the Navajo Tribe.“The first leader of the Navajo Nation was born on Bears Ears. His name was Chief Manuelito. He was my grandfather. We spent a life time working on it. So my question is, is it justifiable for the Secretary of the Interior to spend one hour with the tribes and maybe a month out in San Juan County and make a decision? We’re very concerned that his report to President Trump will be to reduce the monument or to rescind the monument.”

At a reception hosted by the Next 100 Coaltion at the U.S. Capitol Building, Maryboy said that members of the Navajo Nation spent several years compiling historical information that details the depth and breath of this tribe’s relationship with this part of Utah. Elders whom the researchers interviewed recounted stories of their ancestors using natural resources on the land for generations, the evidence of which remains visible today in surviving Native American structures and petroglyphs. The geographic footprint of the tribes’ ongoing habitation spans the natural landscape of Bears Ears, far beyond even the current borders of the monument.

“It was 1.9 million acres, later reduced by President Obama to 1.3 million acres,” Maryboy said. “It’s already considerably reduced in our opinion and for the area to be reduced any further than that would be very, very devastating to Native Americans in San Juan County.”

As the interests of non-native people in Utah should be considered as well, the benefits of retaining the status of Bears Ears as a National Monument extend to everyone. Existing leases for mining and drilling will remain along with privileges of both hunting wild game and grazing domestic animals. And local businesses stand to thrive as an increased flow of tourists into areas near the monument bring the potential to boost economic growth.

“What they are doing is bringing cash and they’re spending it in our communities,” said Carrie Hamblen, CEO/President of the Las Cruces, New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce. “National monuments created under former President Obama created or expanded more than $156 million in local economic activity annually. Non-local visitor spending is the equivalent of supporting over 1800 jobs. And according to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in the U.S. generates upwards of $887 billion every year. That’s up $200 billion since last year.”

The economic development potential of outdoor recreation alone stands to create long-term sustainable jobs throughout the region. The demand for outfitters, guides, foresters, rangers, restauranteurs, lodge clerks, housekeeping staff and maintenance workers will continue to last as long the resources of fresh air, clean water and accessible green space are made available for everyone to enjoy.

On the morning that followed the reception, I explored the Dumbarton Oaks Trail. In the hopes of burning off a late night meal of beef lo mein, scallion pancakes and hot green tea, I walked through this marvelous urban green space in the heart of the Capital. In this well-tended patch of nature I imagined what might happen if all public lands were placed under review and put in jeopardy of reduction or elimination. How might this and other scenic paths be at risk?

If Secretary Zenke were to make an honest assessment of Bears Ears he would see that the people of Utah have far more to gain than to loose by allowing its status as a national monument to remain as it is. Not unlike me, despite my overinflated since of self worth and a tendency to consume more than my fair share of resources, wine, cheese, paella, etc., the continued health and well being of Utah, and for that matter our nation as a whole, may well depend upon regular activity in nature. Whether for outdoor recreation or the preservation of sacred Native American sites, the stewardship of public land for the benefit of every citizen is our highest duty.

 

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.
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