BLUFF, Utah — Bears Ears is a 1.35 million acre national monument that holds different meanings to different people.
For one, it’s a backpacker's remote paradise with endless trails to explore. It also contains clues to 14,000 years of human history with ruins and petroglyphs left by the ancient Pueblo people, who lived among woolly mammoths.
However, to understand how special Bears Ears is to Utah’s indigenous people, its stewards ask you to see it not as land, but as one would view a cathedral or temple.
"If we can put it in the context that this is also someone's place of worship, where their most intimate kinds of spirituality is practiced, I think it differentiates itself in some ways, from the ordinary kinds of places that we go just for outdoor access," said Patrick Gonzalez Rogers.
Rogers is executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition, a group with political representatives from five Utah tribes to advocate for and protect the land that not only serves as a reminder of where they came from but helps them actively maintain a connection to their culture.
"I do think what has occurred in the Bears Ears is a fairly portable model for other entities to look at as we go forward with other issues of public lands, as well as kind of conservation in general," said Gonzalez Rogers.
Created in 2016, Bears Ears was the first-ever national monument established by the request of Native Americans, to be managed federally alongside native people. What was soon discovered was that protection couldn’t be taken for granted.
Vaughn Hadenfeldt is the president of the nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa. Their mission is to help the public understand how to visit Bears Ears respectfully, and also advocate for its protection, helping to document how it was almost lost.
"To see how a national monument in a stroke of a pen could undergo that much reduction was quite alarming," he said.
In 2017, the Trump administration reduced Bears Ears by 85%, leaving behind two separate, non-contiguous areas. It also reduced a nearby monument by half, opening up the rest of the lands to be leased for energy exploration, especially for mining uranium.
Then-president Trump said this was putting land management back into the hands of the state, the Tribes looked at it as a slap in the face.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and Friends of Cedar Mesa, along with other organizations, lobbied the new administration to reverse the order, calling it a violation of the antiquities act. In October, President Biden expanded the bounds again.
"Hopefully those will be resolved at some point. Then, the main way to resolve all of this is, is legislatively, not a proclamation from a president," said Hadenfeldt.
However, the Tribes’ fight for Bears Ears is not over. The Utah Attorney General called this reversal “disappointing” saying, “the President’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity – it fails to provide certainty as well as funding for law enforcement, research and other protections.”
Lawsuits are expected to be filed by the state.
"If this was some kind of just incredible piece of missionary architecture, people would just have a totally different vantage, but because it's the landscape and it doesn't have a Western structure on it, it becomes then a bit diluted," said Gonzalez Rogers
While the future of Bears Ears is still up in the air, Gonzalez Rogers hopes the voices of Native Americans are not only included but respected and upheld in conversations about public lands.
"The tribes offer a way to think about land management in a different way, a way that may add a different kind of patina and this is through traditional and native knowledge," he said.