Bears Ears National Monument designation a great way to end 2016
© Josh Ewing

For millions of Americans who cherish our nation’s public lands, President Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears National Monument was an ideal way to end the year. By providing long-overdue federal protections to one of the nation’s most significant cultural landscapes, the President’s decisive action helps ensure that this irreplaceable piece of our nation’s heritage will endure for the enjoyment of future generations. 

There is no doubt that Bears Ears deserves to be listed alongside other beloved national monuments like Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower and the Grand Canyon. Named for a pair of buttes in San Juan County, Utah, Bears Ears comprises 1.35 million acres featuring tens of thousands of cultural and archaeological sites including Ice Age hunting camps, cliff dwellings, prehistoric villages, petroglyphs and pictographs that help to tell the story of 12,000 years of human history in that region.

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Despite its vast cultural significance and the importance attached to it by so many, Bears Ears has long been threatened. Congressional funding shortfalls for the management of cultural resources by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service have left these precious places vulnerable to looting, vandalism, reckless recreation and energy development. BLM has had just two archaeologists and two rangers for the more than 2 million acres it manages in San Juan County. To put that in context, Delaware and Rhode Island combined are smaller than the district BLM is currently managing with a staff of four.

While the threats to Bears Ears are obvious and pressing, and virtually all stakeholders agree that the current situation is untenable, the search for a workable solution has been elusive.

The real debate, then, was not whether Bears Ears should be designated and receive enhanced protections, but how it should be.

With that in mind, the National Trust worked with elected officials and our local partners for almost ten years to find a solution that would provide additional protections and long-term certainty sought by conservationists and developers. Over the past two years the National Trust stayed at the table working with Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopDozens of states consider move to permanent daylight saving time Statehood bill could make Puerto Rico a state before 2020 Here's why Congress, not the president, should lead on environmental protection MORE and Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzRepublicans spend more than million at Trump properties House Dems seek to make officials feel the pain Lawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay MORE and local officials to find a legislative solution that could provide this certainty. But despite the best efforts of all those involved, this good-faith attempt eventually fell short. The legislation that was introduced late in September unfortunately also included sweeping and controversial changes to longstanding laws protecting our natural and cultural resources, and it did not provide adequate protection for archaeological treasures and cultural landscapes on Bears Ears. 

With the legislative approach essentially exhausted, President Obama stepped in and exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears. More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law, giving the President the authority to protect historic landmarks, structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest. In the ensuing 110 years, President Obama and his predecessors from both parties have exercised this authority over 150 times to designate some of our nation’s most beloved national monuments.

We know the president did not make this decision lightly. In acknowledgement of the members of Congress and the many organizations that worked toward the legislative approach to preserve Bears Ears, President Obama’s designation struck an important compromise; rather than the larger footprint (closer to two million acres) that some had wanted, the new national monument instead hews more closely to the boundaries set forth in Rep. Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative legislation. We think this is an appropriate acknowledgement of the years of work that many people invested in seeking a legislative solution at Bears Ears.

While we join with a broad and diverse coalition of Native American tribes, conservation organizations, archeological groups, local preservation partners and elected officials, in applauding the president’s designation, we also know that our work at Bears Ears National Monument is far from over. To ensure the future success of this new national monument, the Trust pledges to work with our partners, local officials, land managers in Utah, and other stakeholders to seek appropriate funding and sound management plans. We must ensure that the tremendous cultural resources in the Bears Ears National Monument are protected for current and future generations.

Stephanie K. Meeks is the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.