By Matthew Anderson

Editor’s Note: This op-ed originally appeared May 22, 2016, in Deseret News.

Supporters of a Bears Ears national monument often say the Native Americans who have the strongest connections to the land support the monument. They point to an Inter-Tribal Coalition letter to the president to justify this claim.

The reality is that the Native Americans who actually live in the area and rely upon the Bears Ears in their daily lives – for wood to heat their homes, for food to nourish their families and for sacred space to perform their religious ceremonies – do not want a national monument unilaterally designated by President Barack Obama. Like the rest of us, they would prefer that the federal government leave them and the land alone, so they can continue to live out their cultural heritage.

In other words: The proponents’ blanket statements of Native American support are misleading oversimplifications of the political realities. Further, their assurances that Native Americans’ lives will be unaffected follow the pattern of our nation’s unfortunate history with Native American peoples: make promises to gain support, then turn around and destroy Native American life and culture in pursuit of ideological and political goals.

One such example is the oft-repeated “guarantee” that a monument designation will not restrict Native Americans from their traditional uses of the land. The claim is that the collection of medicinal herbs, wood cutting, hunting, and religious ceremonies will continue as they always have once the monument is created. But national monument advocates are writing a check they can’t cash.

While the Inter-Tribal Coalition proposal requests that the national monument designation contain provisions ensuring their access to the land, rarely does a proposal’s language transfer word for word into the president’s final proclamation. Extreme environmental groups opposed to hunting, woodcutting or other activities that “take” from the land, and who have significant influence with Obama, are likely to lobby the president to deviate from the Inter-Tribal Coalition proposal.

Even if a national monument proclamation did contain language protecting Native American access, land management practices do not always reflect federal policies. The last national monument designated in Utah illustrates this reality. When President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Garfield and Kane Counties, his proclamation promised residents that grazing would continue: “Nothing in this proclamation shall be deemed to affect existing permits or leases, or levels of livestock grazing on federal lands within the monument.”

Nearly 20 years later, the number of animals grazing on the monument has declined significantly. The Bureau of Land Management has revoked permits and closed much-needed rangeland. Those ranchers left in the area face an uphill battle. They can’t extend or move water lines within their allotments, fence riparian areas, maintain roads, or take other necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of their livestock. This is slowly pushing cattle off the range and ranchers off the land their families have worked for generations.

And management practices are not the only threat Native Americans will face if the Bears Ears is designated a national monument. The designation of high-acreage national monuments like the Bears Ears has become a stepping stone on the way to the creation of new national parks. This is a stepping stone that Utahns are all too familiar with: Four out of Utah’s five national parks began as national monuments designated by the U.S. president. The restrictions accompanying a national park are generally far more restrictive than those imposed after monument designations. Rock collecting, ATV riding, cutting wood, picking flowers, hunting, and primitive camping are rarely, if ever, permitted anywhere in a national park.

Given the monument-to-national-park reality and the history of federal government dishonesty and abuse toward Native Americans, it seems irresponsible to guarantee Native Americans that their traditional uses of the Bears Ears would not be restricted by a national monument designation. What guarantee is there that Obama would include their rights in his final proclamation? How do we know that tribes wouldn’t suffer the same fate as their neighbors in Kane and Garfield Counties, losing the quality and level of access to the land they have become accustomed to? What safeguards are in place to keep the area from becoming a national park that would further restrict their use of the land? The sound bites and talking points of national monument advocates ignore these questions, falling short of the elevated dialogue that addresses political realities and produces good policy.

Matt Anderson is the policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.


Matt Anderson is director of Sutherland Institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West. He has been featured in local, national and international media, including BBC, NPR, C-SPAN, Buzzfeed, the Washington Examiner and a variety of Associated Press articles. Matt is a regular contributor to The Hill and Deseret News.

Matt graduated from Utah State University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and is pursuing a master’s of political science with an emphasis in public lands policy. He is an active member of his community – volunteering on political campaigns, serving as a state delegate and precinct chair – and he is involved with a number of conservation organizations. When Matt isn’t working on public policy, you are likely to find him in Utah’s Bear River Mountain Range fly-fishing, hunting or ATV riding.


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