President Obama creates two controversial national monuments in Utah and Nevada

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President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument today, protecting 1.35 million acres of land in southwest Utah. The region is rich in culturally significant sites for Native tribes that have lived there for generations. Today’s proclamation also created the Bears Ears Commission to ensure that Tribal Nations have a say in how the land is managed.

It’s a controversial move in President Obama’s last month in office: supporters praise the president for protecting lands and artifacts sacred to Native peoples. But opponents argue that the act was high-handed and prevents people in a poor region from taking advantage of the area’s natural resources. Republicans have vowed to fight it; Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted that he will work tirelessly to undo the president’s act.

The president has the power to create national monuments under the federal Antiquities Act of 1906, which he invoked today to create the Bears Ears National Monument and the Gold Butte National Monument — more than 300,000 acres in northern Nevada. Both of these are massive, compared to nearby national parks: Zion National Park is about 150,000 acres, and Arches National Park is approximately 76,000 acres, according to the Deseret News. These two new national monuments bring the number created by President Obama up to 29, totalling 553 million acres of land and water, according to the Washington Post.

Cedar Mesa house on fire ruin Photograph by the Bureau of Land Management (Flickr CC BY 2.0)
A ruin in Cedar Mesa, southwest Utah — this region will be protected by President Obama’s act today.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has been pushing the federal government to protect the land for years. Creased by canyons, Bears Ears National Monument stretches from Canyonland National Park to the San Juan River in southwestern Utah. Its name comes from the two rock formations that poke above the landscape like ears. The region is studded by potash and uranium deposits as well as petroglyphs, archaeological sites, land sacred to local Native tribes, like the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni.

“For the first time in history, a president has used the Antiquities Act to honor the request of Tribal Nations to protect our sacred sites. In doing so, he has given the opportunity for all Americans to come together and heal,” said David Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council Delegate, in a statement.

How exactly the monument designation will change land use in the Bears Ears National Monument isn’t yet clear, since protections vary from monument to monument. Typically, the designation means that no new mining can take place in the area. It’s possible that existing mining activities might have to conform to higher environmental standards to continue. Cars are usually still allowed in specific areas, as are recreational activities like hunting, fishing, and camping.

Utah’s existing national parks bring an annual $ 1 billion into the state’s economy every year, according to High Country News — and it’s possible Bears Ears National Monument could add to that number.

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