Obama gives a voice to Native Americans
President Barak Obama is on his way to becoming one of the most notable protectors of public lands and the environment in presidential history. Last month Obama used his authority under an obscure provision of a 1953 law to put about 115 million acres in the Arctic Ocean and about 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean permanently off-limits to drilling.
Closer to home, with the stroke of a pen on Dec. 28, the president increased federal protection for the Bears Ears area of southeast Utah, and Gold Butte in Nevada. With the prospect of Donald Trump looming, Obama is using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to secure as much public land as possible from the industrial development Trump is expected to encourage.
Obama’s bold move fulfills a proposal initiated in 1936 by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes who served under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ickes proposed making the Bears Ears a national monument, but Roosevelt apparently never took action on the suggestion.
Obama has rectified that oversight by adding the Bears Ears to his growing inventory of public land closed to development. As The New York Times reports, “Mr. Obama has designated about 553 million acres as national monuments, more than any of his predecessors.”
The Bears Ears national monument will protect 1.35 million acres of public land around the prominent twin buttes in southeast Utah. Its unprecedented management plan will create a unique commission of representatives of the five local tribes with historic connections to the area to advise federal monument managers.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” President Obama said in a statement.
In July 2015, the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition was founded to unite sovereign Native American nations in the effort to conserve the Bears Ears cultural landscape. The coalition also seeks active engagement in management of the area.
Members of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition are the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe.
The protected areas are well-known for their pre-historic Native American ruins, but for tribes in the area, they still offer both physical and spiritual sustenance. From gathering pinyon nuts and firewood to holding sacred ceremonies, the Bears Ears is integral to Native American life and culture in the region.
The decision “actually brought tears to my face,” said Eric Descheenie, a former leader of the inter-tribal group that lobbied for the monument. “It’s so significant. It’s so hard to even try to add up what this really means. At the end of the day, there’s only a certain place in this entire world, on Earth, where we indigenous peoples belong.”
Not surprisingly, Utah Republican politicians are aroused against a move they claim is a federal land grab. “President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicizes a long simmering conflict,” charges Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz. “The midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes.”
Utah lawmakers had supported protection for the area, but were implacably opposed to the creation of a national monument. “This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand,” Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee said in a statement. “I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation.”
This adversarial position is particularly notable because both Utah Gov. Gary Hebert and Rep. Rob Bishop agree that the Bears Ears should be saved. They believe that can be done without federal protection, though little evidence supports their position.
For President Trump to undo a predecessor’s designation of a national monument would be unprecedented in presidential history. The 1906 law that authorizes the creation of national monuments by the president offers no express authority to revoke a designation by a previous president.
Were the incoming president almost anyone but Donald Trump, it might be expected that Obama’s last-minute designations would be honored by the new president.
But this incoming president is Donald Trump, and public lands in the American West face an uncertain future.