Native American tribes will co-manage Bears Ears national monument in landmark agreement

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In a new agreement, five Native American tribes and the US federal government have agreed to jointly manage the Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3 million-acre protected landscape in Utah.

The monument – first designated in 2016 under President Obama – is home to archaeological sites including petroglyphs (rock art) and structures like ancient cliff dwellings, with significant cultural meaning to local tribes.

The five tribes include the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Pueblo of Zuni.

The agreement, signed on Saturday, comes after hundreds of years in which conflict and animosity between the federal government and Native American communities has been common.

“What can be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving Tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands their ancestors were removed from?” Carleton Bowekaty, Zuni Pueblo lieutenant governor and Bears Ears Commission co-chair, said in a statement.

As per the new agreement, the tribes – along with the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service – will cooperate on decisions surrounding land use, resource protection, and ensuring that “Tribal Nations have access to sacred sites and other areas of Tribal importance”, among other management goals.

Over the course of US history, the federal government has often fought with Native American communities, including expelling many tribes from their land and forcibly putting Native American children in boarding schools – in addition to directly fighting wars against some tribes.

“Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future,” Mr Bowekaty said in the statement.

Former President Obama first created the Bears Ears monument – named for two twin buttes on the landscape – in late 2016 after advocacy from the tribes, according to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

The monument was created under the Antiquities Act, which gives the US president the ability to designate national monuments without going through Congress. These areas, which are given some protections, include sites of historical, archaeological and natural significance across the country.

In 2017, the Trump administration sought to shrink Bears Ears down to around 200,000 acres, about an 85 per cent reduction in size. But last year, the Biden administration reinstated the full size of the monument at over 1.3 million acres – about 75 per cent larger than Yosemite National Park.

“This is an important step as we move forward together to ensure that Tribal expertise and traditional perspectives remain at the forefront of our joint decision-making for the Bears Ears National Monument,” Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning said via the statement, remarking on this week’s agreement signing.