The Bears Ears, two buttes on the horizon rise above Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah, lend their name to the surrounding landscape. Five federally recognized Indian tribes have formed a coalition to seek presidential designation of a National Monument to protect the home of their ancestors. President Obama should act on their request as it reflects a new way forward for conservation in America – reflecting, honoring and engaging all people in the protection of our heritage. 

The five tribes – Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni – presented their proposal to President Obama in October 2015, asking him to issue a proclamation under the Antiquities Act.  The proposed National Monument would be comprised of about 1.9 million acres of existing national public land already managed by federal agencies. 


This landscape has been inhabited by Native peoples for a very long time.  There are more than 100,000 known Native American cultural sites within the proposed boundaries of the monument, from lithic scatters to village complexes and cliff dwellings, as well as granaries, rock art sites, and graves of ancestors.  The Native presence is also contemporary, as members of the various tribes continue to venture into the Bears Ears landscape to carry on cultural traditions such as gathering herbs and medicinal plants, worshipping at sacred places, holding ceremonies, gathering firewood, and hunting.  As the tribes see it, there is a need to protect this landscape from ongoing grave-robbing and looting which rob us of our heritage. There is also concern about the impacts of extractive resource development such as oil and gas drilling and uranium mining, and the roads that go along with such development.

The Bears Ears National Monument proposal is unusual in two ways.  One is that an inter-tribal coalition is the driving force behind it.  Tribes have been involved in other campaigns to seek national monument proclamations, but this is the first real initiative led by tribal nations.  They have worked on the proposal for more than five years, with extensive efforts to seek input from the public, including efforts to engage federal, state, and county government officials.

The other way in which the inter-tribal coalition’s proposal is unusual is that it is premised on the concept of collaborative management.  The tribes seek an arrangement in which the federal agencies do more than consult but, rather, actually engage the tribes in helping to manage the Bears Ears landscape for conservation purposes.  This strikes me as a good idea – and an innovative new way to approach conservation.  A major purpose of the Bears EarsNational Monument is to conserve the living resources that tribal members use in carrying on cultural traditions.  Conservation of these resources, and access by tribal members and the public, would be governed by a management plan, to be developed with public input after the proclamation.  Collaborative management is a pragmatic approach in which ultimate authority would be retained by the federal agencies. 

That of course requires leadership and collaboration from both Interior Secretary Jewell, who has been an outspoken advocate for Indian Country, and USDA Secretary Vilsack.

Collaborative management could yield other benefits.  Western science and traditional tribal knowledge can interact with and learn from one another.  A respectful setting just might be the key to helping these two approaches to build on one another.

As we approach the Centennial of the National Park Service, all federal land management agencies should be looking for opportunities to engage communities of color and take proactive steps to be more inclusive in their approaches to conservation. Protecting Bears EarsNational Monument would be a sustainable, durable and innovative way to protect tribal heritage for the benefit of all Americans.

Mr. Suagee is an attorney with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, LLP, in Washington, D.C.