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Who Bears the Consequences? Discontinuity in the protection of Bears Ears National Monument

Each year, hundreds of thousands of wanderlusting adventure-seekers travel to Blanding, Utah, a quaint town with a population of under 4,000 people located in the southeastern corner of the state. What intrigues these excited travelers? The answer is simple: Blanding is home to the breathtaking Bears Ears National Monument. What some visitors may not expect, however, are posters, bumper stickers, and billboards protesting the exact attraction that they came to see.

Bears Ears was thrust into the spotlight in 2016 when President Obama issued an executive order naming it a national monument before leaving office. Just a year later, President Trump reduced its acreage, and now President Biden plans to re-expand the monument to its original size, most likely by way of another executive order. While the effort to protect this monument today is worthwhile, President Biden must come to realize that the cycle of downsizing and restoring the monument based solely on which party controls the executive branch would leave both San Juan County and the land it covers in indefinite limbo, offering no longstanding protection to Bears Ears or its surrounding townships.

Formal governmental protection of Bears Ears has been hotly debated for generations due to the land’s rich history. Bears Ears contains thousands of artifacts from the Ancestral Puebloans, a prehistoric Native American tribe that inhabited Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado from approximately 100 AD to 1600 AD. The Ancestral Puebloans are speculated to be the ancestors of current Indigenous tribes in Utah, including the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and Ute Mountain Ute peoples. Given the historical significance of the land and its sacred status, Indigenous peoples have long lobbied for state or federal action to protect it. Most notably, several tribes formed a joint coalition that proposed a comprehensive plan to protect over 1.9 million acres of Bears Ears and eventually accepted a compromise presented by the Obama administration to protect 1.35 million acres. Included in this protection were prohibitions on mining and energy development within the national monument’s borders.

Despite praise from environmental groups and the coalition of Indigenous tribes, the decision was a controversial one. The executive order came as a last-ditch effort by President Obama to protect the land after years of pushback in Congress. More specifically, Republican leadership in Utah vehemently opposed the designation because of the detrimental impacts that it would have on neighboring towns such as Blanding.

For many Blanding residents, the designation of the monument was their worst nightmare come to fruition. The new status meant the decline of the uranium industry, which employs many residents at a mill in the area. Advocates for the monument have argued that these jobs would be replaced by service industry and tourism jobs; however, opponents countered that such jobs are less financially reliable because of their seasonal nature. Moreover, because the land would no longer be owned by the federal government, San Juan County schools would lose funding from the State of Utah School and Trust Lands Association, which previously financed a significant portion of Blanding’s education system.

In 2017, encouraged by fellow Republicans, President Trump reduced the amount of protected land for the monument by 85 percent. This shrinkage served to protect the vitality of the uranium industry—specifically the uranium plant in San Juan County—and assuage the aforementioned worries of opposing residents. However, the reduction had unintended consequences. The downsizing of the monument did not stop the growing foot traffic that heightened publicity had brought, and despite increased tourism, there is now a lack of federal funds to sustain effective measures to protect the land.

Until 2019, the San Juan County Commission, one of the county’s governing bodies, aligned itself with President Trump and supported his action to downsize the monument. However, in 2019, the San Juan County commission changed its stance: In a 2-1 vote, the commission formally condemned President Trump’s actions and advocated for the re-expansion of the monument. This new alignment came a er a redistricting process that led to San Juan County’s first ever majority-Navajo commission.

On January 22, the Biden administration announced that it will review the Trump administration’s decision to downsize Bears Ears, in tandem with President Biden’s comprehensive plan to address the existential threat of climate change. However, the potential re-expansion of the boundaries of the monument begs the question: Would another executive order restoring the monument to its original size do more harm than good?

Republican Senators such as Mitt Romney (R-UT) argue that it will. When asked for a comment on Biden’s announcement to review the downsizing, Romney responded, “A review in name only with predetermined results, which ultimately leads to the unilateral executive order enlarging the monuments’ boundaries, will not solve the root of the problem and will only deepen divisions in this country.” Romney’s response references years of debate prior to Obama’s designation of Bears Ears as a national monument, as well as the economic and social repercussions of such a decision on San Juan County residents.

By re-expanding the borders of the monument through an executive order, Biden would once again bypass Congress and, in doing so, neglect the concerns of Blanding’s residents. The town would continue to lack funding for education and incur more layoffs as a result of closing the uranium mill. Furthermore, by contributing to a cycle of expanding and contracting the size of the monument, the Biden administration would perpetuate a multitude of other problems. For example, despite a consistent ow of tourism to Bears Ears, the land would constantly be losing and regaining financial resources for upkeep and conservation, thereby undermining the purpose of designating Bears Ears as a national monument in the first place. Moreover, with the most lucrative work continuing to fluctuate between service industry jobs and jobs in the uranium, mining, or extraction industries, residents of San Juan County would never have a stable financial income that lasted more than a single president’s term.

With all of these consequences in mind, the Biden administration should carefully consider its options. The beautiful, sacred land that is Bears Ears National Monument deserves some form of protection. However, instead of enacting yet another executive order that would only provide a transient safeguard and leave residents of Blanding and other small towns on the border of Bears Ears in economic uncertainty, President Biden should pass bipartisan legislation in Congress that addresses both the concerns of San Juan County residents and solidifies the protection of Bears Ears. Such legislation should include compensation to the local San Juan County government, increased funding for education, decision-making power to Indigenous tribes regarding how the land is protected, and plans to effectively train and transition laid-off workers into new jobs. President Biden has often described himself as a bipartisan compromiser, but only time will tell whether he can deliver when it comes to protecting monuments such as Bears Ears.