Federal officials signed an agreement Saturday with five Indigenous tribes to co-manage Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, fulfilling a promise made by the Obama administration in 2016.
The landmark move will help shield the vast site in southeastern Utah, home to sacred Indigenous sites and precious petroglyphs and pictographs, from the sort of environmental damage inflicted during the Trump administration.
Bears Ears spans more than 1.3 million miles of red rock canyon, cliff dwellings, and pastural land still actively used for grazing livestock. Many members of the local Indigenous nations visit periodically to connect with their culture.
The new arrangement was formalized in a ceremony Saturday attended by the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, and representatives from the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe. A new sign for the monument was unveiled bearing the tribal nations insignia.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement that the co-management of Bear Lands represents “what true Tribal co-management should look like: sharing in the decisions and management plan with federal investments to supplement efforts. This is one step in how we honor our nation-to-nation relationships with Tribes.”
Bears Ears has been a source of tension for years. In 2015, the five tribal nations formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in a bid to exert control over their ancestral home.
Then, in 2016, then-president Barack Obama invoked the Antiquities Act, a 1906 stature allowing presidents to designate federal lands as protected monuments based on cultural, historic, or scientific reasons, to establish Bears Ears as a national monument. His pledge to transfer stewardship of the land to the tribes was not formalized before his administration ended.
The monument became a flashpoint for protests in 2017 after the Trump administration reduced its boundaries by roughly 85% to allow for resource extraction—an environmentally traumatizing operation that prompted the World Monuments Fund to list it as an endangered site.
Last October, President Biden formally restored the monument’s boundaries. Republican lawmakers in Utah are currently attempting to overturn Biden’s ruling.
Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Bureau of Land Management, said in a statement that the partnership between the federal government and the coalition of tribes is an “important step as we move forward together to ensure that Tribal expertise and traditional perspectives remain at the forefront of our joint decision-making for the Bears Ears National Monument.”
She added that “this type of true co-management will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future.”