The Atlantic becomes the latest national publication to take an in-depth look at the controversy surrounding the proposal, currently under consideration by Pres. Obama, to ignore the input of state and local leaders and unilaterally designate yet another vast national monument in southern Utah.
Looking to spark some excitement in the great state of Utah? Stroll into any PTA, Elks Club, or town council meeting, step to the microphone, and ever so gently broach the subject of Bears Ears. Then duck and cover as people’s heads start to explode.
Despite the darling moniker, “Bears Ears” is not some deep-fried carnival snack or ancient Chinese libido booster. It is, rather, political shorthand for 1.9 million acres in southeast Utah that President Obama is pondering designating a national monument. The “ears” in question are twin buttes hovering over the surrounding San Juan County, a sprawling stretch of wilderness that now finds itself at the white-hot center of a brawl over public-land management, presidential authority, and the 110-year-old Antiquities Act.
Chock full of Native American burial sites, much of Bears Ears is important—sacred even—to local tribes. For decades, folks have been feuding over how the region should be managed and by whom. Last year, representatives from five tribes petitioned Obama to intervene using the Antiquities Act, a (Teddy) Roosevelt-era law giving presidents the power to declare public lands as national monuments. Environmental groups, 20 additional tribes, and a big chunk of preservation-minded Utahans support the proposal.
But land management is a flammable issue in Utah. We’re talking Al-Sharpton-going-to-see-Hamilton-with-David-Duke level flammable. This is hardly surprising when you consider that 65 percent of the state’s land is owned by the federal government. So while much of the nation has cheered Obama’s second-term flurry of monument making (he’s named 23 sites thus far, more than any other U.S. president), Utahans are more skeptical.
Many residents, in fact, get downright ornery about the possibility of a president—especially a Democratic president—unilaterally placing monument restrictions on huge swaths of their state. Part of it is a dislike of Washington D.C. generally and of presidential authority in particular. “Utah loves government process,” explained Ted Wilson, a long-time environmental activist and former mayor of Salt Lake City. They like to see issues hashed out in the state legislature and in Congress, he said. “So the idea that a president can just put pen to paper is anathema.”
More particularly, there remains much ill will in Utah over President Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. It was, pretty much all of Utah agreed, handled badly. The president didn’t bother giving a heads up to state leaders, and then went to Arizona to deliver the announcement, Wilson recalled. “Even the Democrats were mad about that one,” he said. “I was co-chair of Clinton’s campaign that year, and I was so upset about it, I threatened to resign.”