President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument in December drew praise from tribes and environmental advocates while earning consternation from Utah state officials and San Juan County residents. 

For new Utah residents or those who weren’t paying close attention to the debate, the Bears Ears controversy can be tough to navigate.

Here we offer some background on Bears Ears, what might change with the designation and whether those protections will be permanent.

1. Where is the Bears Ears National Monument?

The new monument includes 1.35 million acres.

It lies west of Highway 191, following Moab 100 miles south to Bluff. Canyonlands National Park and a stretch of the Colorado River to Glen Canyon border to the west. Within its boundaries lie Natural Bridges National Monument, the Abajo Mountains, Cedar Mesa, the popular Indian Creek climbing area, the monument’s namesake Bears Ears buttes and thousands of archeological artifacts, including cave dwellings, petroglyphs and ceremonial kivas.

The Bears Ears area is an important site for Native American tribes. They use the area for hunting, fishing, ceremonies and collecting traditional plants. Many tribes, but not all, support the national monument designation.

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2. Why is the designation controversial?

The Bears Ears area is the latest battle in the 40-year Sage Brush Rebellion, where Western ranchers, residents and lawmakers have fought to exert more state control over federal lands. State leaders urged Obama not to declare the area a monument, worrying it would hinder development in San Juan County, an already economically depressed region.

Gov. Gary Herbert also warned it could “fan the flames” of Utah’s public lands conflict. Utah lawmakers have demanded the federal government turn over more than 30 million acres of federally managed public land to the state.

The 1906 Antiquities Act allows presidents to protect federal lands by declaring national monuments. Many such monuments were later declared national parks by Congress, including Arches National Park.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, has called the monument proposal an “overreach,” since it protects such a large swath of land. He argued the Antiquities Act was meant to be confined to small areas of archeological significance to prevent looting and vandalism.

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3. Did Utah lawmakers present alternatives?

Utah’s lawmakers agree the Bears Ears region contains unique cultural and scenic values that deserve protection. But they say local officials better understand how to manage Utah’s lands. Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz sponsored a Public Lands Initiative bill earlier this year in an effort to halt the national monument designation.

The bill would have included wilderness areas protected from mining and fossil fuel exploration, expanded Arches National Park and protected 357 miles of waterways as wild and scenic rivers. 

It also granted states more control over federal oil and gas leases. Environmental advocates argued the bill offered weak protection for the vast majority of the region’s cultural landscape and gave little representation to the tribal and conservation communities.

Congress adjourned this month without taking action on the bill.

4. What does the national monument designation mean for Bears Ears?

The national monument is smaller than a 1.9 million-acre inter-tribal coalition proposal and slightly larger than the Utah Public Lands Initiative bill. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will coordinate with a tribal commission in managing the lands. 

The monument designation allows current authorized uses of the land, including hunting, fishing and grazing permits. Existing permits for oil and gas exploration, mining and utility corridors also will not change. 

No new oil and gas exploration or mining will be allowed

The secretaries of Interior and Agriculture will work with representatives from tribes, state and local government, recreational communities, and the public as it develops a management plan. That plan will designate motorized and non-motorized trails.

5. What does the future hold?

The future of Bears Ears continues to look rocky. Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, along with Gov. Herbert, have vowed to work with the incoming Donald Trump administration to overturn the designation. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes plans to file a lawsuit against the action.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday, April 26, directing his interior secretary to review the designation of dozens of national monuments on federal lands.

No national monument designation has been revoked by a president in the past, a November report by the Congressional Research Service notes, so no such action has been tested in court. Congress has clear authority to overturn a national monument, however, and has done so in the past. Presidents have also successfully expanded and decreased the acreage of existing national monuments. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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