The Biden administration is using its executive powers to restore environmental protections to Bears Ears National Monument, an expansive, sacred landscape in Utah. The move comes four years after former President Donald Trump stripped protections away from Bears Ears, cutting back its area by 82%.
Biden will reinstate the monument’s 1.35 million acre boundaries, the White House said on Friday. Indigenous communities are celebrating the announcement.
“Thank you, President Biden, for restoring Bears Ears National Monument to its original vision of protection by incorporating Antiquities Laws to dissuade vandalism and desecrations of our ancestral artifacts and homeland,” Hank Stevens, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said in an emailed statement.
Biden will also restore protections to two other monuments for which Trump slashed protections: Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine in Rhode Island.
Bears Ears National Monument, a rugged stretch of red rock, juniper forests, high plateau, is sacred to nearby Indigenous nations like the Navajo Nation, Zuni, Utah Diné Bikéyah, and Hopi. Tribes have called the land home for 13,000 years.
The rocky landscape is where some Indigenous communities first learned to farm corn and carve arrowheads. Many still frequent the region to find ceremonial herbs and sand to use in art.
But the landscape has not always been protected. It was Indigenous-led organizing, especially by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the Native-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah, that won Bears Ears’ national monument designation in the first place. The groups pressured the Obama administration to add the protections for the public lands, which Obama did in December 2016.
The designation was a tiny positive development in a centuries-long history of colonial violence toward Indigenous people—one that the Trump administration callously took back. Native organizers said that by reinstating protections, Biden is demonstrating his understanding of the enduring ancestral and cultural connections to the land and honoring them.
The reinstitution of protections for Bears Ears isn’t just important to tribal communities. Paleontologists have long noted that the land is full of fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years.
Last year, the Utah Geological Association released a landmark study showing that the region contains a geologic record of many significant events in the development of life on our planet, including from the Middle Pennsylvanian Period, Cretaceous Period, Pleistocene, and Holocene deposits. Scientists have found such wonders as the jaw of a phytosaur, an early ancestor of the crocodile that resided in the Utah area over 220 million years ago, and generally marveled at the rich paleontology in the region. These researchers were rightfully upset about shrinking the monument and opening the lands up to extraction.
Republicans are less than thrilled about the restored protections to Bears Ears.
“Rather than take the opportunity to build unity in a divided region and bring resources and lasting protections to sacred antiquities by seeking a mutually beneficial and permanent legislative solution, President Biden fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments,” reads a statement signed by Utah’s two senators and three representatives, all of whom are Republicans.
That could lead to more fights, including potential lawsuits filed by ranchers and mining groups. But Native organizers hope to see more moves like this from the Biden administration, saying they’re looking for him to continue to work with the Tribes to steward the land, and are now calling for a comprehensive Land Management Plan can be developed for the greater Bears Ears landscape.
“For us, the Monument never went away. We will always return to these lands to manage and care for our sacred sites, waters, and medicines,” Chairman Shaun Chapoose, Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said in an emailed statement. “The Monument represents a historic opportunity for the federal government to learn and incorporate our tribal land management practices that we developed over centuries and are needed more now than ever.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to ever hold the post, was instrumental in convincing the administration to restore protections. Indigenous groups have been hopeful that Haaland would offer a new path forward, one that could return land and foster a different set of values for public resources. This could be a start toward those goals.