Protecting Native American Land with a National Monument: A Policy Vision for President Obama in Utah - by Sage Marshall

An Inter-Tribal coalition of five Native American tribes, with the support of environmentalist and outdoor recreation groups, is currently petitioning President Obama to designate 1.9 million acres of land in Southeast Utah a national monument. The Canyonlands, marked by massive twin buttes, composes a vast expanse of the Ancestral Puebloan cultural landscape, scattered with remnants of a past society. I have backpacked in this sacred region twice; witnessing the disintegrating pot shards and crumbling interior rooms in the canyons left me in awe of our collective past.

Obama should designate this National Monument before he leaves office.

The Ancestral Puebloans lived in cave dwellings in the Southwest U.S. between 1500 BCE and 1300 CE before joining the Hopi and Zuni tribes. Although many ruins have been looted, artifacts and well-preserved archeological sites can still be witnessed in Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.

In Utah, local government officials oppose the monument, stating that its designation of a would be federal overreach. Republican Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Jason Chaffetz have introduced a bill that would protect certain areas of the proposed monument while allowing for the rapid development of ranching, mining, and oil industries in the rest. Proponents of the monument, including the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, have come out against the “compromise,” citing that the Republican lawmakers are not taking the Native Americans’ concerns seriously. When opponents of the monument argue that the creation of a national monument is a federal overreach, I tell them to look next door, to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Southwest Colorado.

President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act in 1906 which was passed in a direct response to concerns over the loss of American Archeology resources. President Roosevelt first created Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming and subsequently Chaco Canyon and Gila Cliff Dwellings, which are two Ancestral Puebloan sites in New Mexico. He designated 18 monuments in all. Since then, the Antiquities Act has survived a Supreme Court challenge and U.S. presidents have designated 122 National Monuments in total.

One of the presidents who utilized the Antiquities Act most heavily was President Bill Clinton, who designated 18 national monuments during his presidency, one of which was an area very similar to the area proposed for Bears Ears. Nearing the end of his presidency, President Clinton asked his Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbit, to search for more areas that warranted protection as a national monument. Adjacent to the famous Mesa Verde ruins, near Cortez CO, was a landscape of canyons brimming with archeological relics.

Babbit, like myself and many others, was concerned with protecting the entire landscape, the 176,056 acres of land that would become the monument.

“Doesn't it make sense, in light of a subsequent 100 years of understanding, to say that we have room in the West to protect the landscape, and -- if you will -- an anthropological ecosystem,” said Babbit in a lecture to the University of Denver Law School in 2000.

Clinton heeded Babbit’s recommendation and designated Canyons of the Ancients National Monument along with three other national monuments on June 9th, 2000. The White House’s press release illustrated the need to protect the sacred land.

“The 164,000-acre monument contains the highest known density of archeological sites anywhere in the United States, with rich, well-preserved remnants of native cultures going back thousands of years.”

Now it’s up to Pres. Obama to decide whether to create a similar monument in Utah. Obama has already issued 23 proclamations to create national monuments and has protected over 3.9 million acres of public land, the most of any President in history. Additionally, Obama has focused on creating national monuments that recognized the histories of underrepresented groups. For instance, Obama recently created the Stonewall National Monument in June in recognition of the LGBT community and its history. Needless to say, Native Americans have been persecuted and stripped of their land since the day Europeans arrived in the Americas. Especially with the current Native American protests in Standing Rock, a move by President Obama to protect a place with so rich a cultural landscape, with a National Monument that the Inter-Tribal Coalition hopes to become the most “’native’ of all federal public land units,” is a must.

Sage Marshall