State Policy Network
Shaping the Narrative Around Bears Ears

By Matt Anderson

San Juan County, Utah, is a place of ancient cliff dwellings, towering mesas, and unparalleled beauty. For the 15,000 people who call this place home, public lands are about much more than rock climbing, camping, and outdoor recreation. Their history, culture, and future depend on access to public lands and the life-sustaining resources they provide. Simply put, public lands are their whole world.

In December, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres of public land (one third of San Juan County) as the Bears Ears National Monument. This designation had little to do with protecting archeological treasures. Instead, a presidential legacy, outdoor recreation, and narrow-minded land management drove the designation process. The voices of locals who know and love their public lands the most were drowned out by deep-pocketed environmental groups, corporate interests, and wealthy celebrities.

Through a coordinated effort with local tribes and county residents, Sutherland Institute helped transform an obscure grassroots effort into a national issue. Rallies, videos, commercials, op-eds, trips to Washington, DC, and a host of other activities have shaped the narrative surrounding the monument. For months, those on the environmental left dominated the media, but this all changed as we put people first and showcased real-life stories. Regional, national and even international media began pouring into San Juan County to report how locals truly felt about the monument. Instead of hearing only from people far removed from the land, the American public began to see the overwhelming local opposition to the monument. Now, the federal government has begun to take notice.

Last month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke toured San Juan County where he met people from all walks of life. He rode horses with third-generation rancher Zeb Dalton and learned about grazing in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. He listened to Navajo medicine woman Grandma Betty Jones tell stories about gathering traditional herbs and medicines along the Bears Ears Buttes. He heard from farmers like Elmer Hurst about the difficulties of raising crops in the arid Southwest. While their use of the land differs, they all stood in solidarity to ask Secretary Zinke to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument. Their voices were finally heard. Last week, Secretary Zinke sent a recommendation to the President suggesting a revision of the monument’s boundaries. This was a huge win for the people of San Juan County.

Ironically, it has taken a place called Bears Ears for the federal government to listen to the voices of those most impacted by national monument designations. Under the Antiquities Act, presidents have unchecked authority to unilaterally set aside millions of acres of public lands with just the stroke of a pen. This has produced a troubling trend in recent decades as presidents are designating more monuments of greater size and ignoring the desires of locals. It’s time we amend the Antiquities Act so that local opinions and knowledge of the land are incorporated into the monument designation process. Representation and conservation are not mutually exclusive. We invite you to learn more about the Antiquities Act and the Bears Ears National Monument at Join with us to amend the Antiquities Act into a law by, of and for the people where local voices safeguard the environment, protect archeological sites and secure the American Dream for rural communities.

Matt Anderson is Policy Analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West at the Sutherland Institute.

Watch the Video


Categories: Policy Issues