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Why the fate of Bears Ears’ cultural treasures is uncertain

In the rugged and remote canyons of Southern Utah, scientists say they've barely scratched the surface of discoveries that can reach back millions of years, or shed light on the last 10,000 years of human history. But their work in Bears Ears National Monument is now caught up in the shifting politics of our time, and a dispute over land use and federal oversight. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • John Yang:

    Now the battle over who should control public lands that are rich with both rare artifacts and natural resources.

    Jeffrey Brown reports about the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah. It's part of his Culture at Risk series.

  • Randall Irmis:

    We're in rocks that are almost 300 million years old here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the rugged and remote canyons of Southern Utah, there are many ways to count time.

  • Randall Irmis:

    So, what have you exposed here?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Paleontologist Randall Irmis and his team are finding bones from a hundred million before dinosaurs.

  • Randall Irmis:

    This site is what we call a bone bed. So, we found hundreds of bones of many different individuals and different species.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Irmis is a professor at Utah University and curator at its Natural History Museum.

  • Randall Irmis:

    We barely scratched the surface in terms of the paleontology out here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Really?

  • Randall Irmis:

    I would say less than 5 percent has been systematically prospected for sites.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Researchers working near here recently announced a spectacular finding, Triassic period remains of a crocodile-like animal called phytosaurs.

    It's painstaking work in an area now caught up in the shifting politics of our time. In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to create the Bears Ears National Monument, 1.35 million acres, named for two buttes that tower over part of the landscape.

    That designation, which in the past has led to the creation of national parks, set in motion a plan to put tighter restrictions on how the land could be used.

    No one disputes the awe-inspiring beauty of this area, but there's a great dispute over land use and federal oversight. In December, President Trump removed 100 million acres, shrinking the monument by 85 percent, signing a proclamation in Salt Lake City.

    Bruce Adams was there cheering him on. Adams is a retired schoolteacher and county commissioner here in the vast San Juan County, an area larger than several states. A fifth-generation rancher, his sense of time centers on his Mormon pioneer ancestors, who came here in 1879.

  • Bruce Adams:

    I just think the local people should have a large input into what the federal government is going to designate. We have taken care of the cultural resources, the other resources for generations.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Much of the land here has long been overseen by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, the BLM. And Adams and many here think that's more than enough.

  • Bruce Adams:

    We want the land the access left open, so that everybody has an equal opportunity to enjoy the public lands in San Juan County.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, why was the monument important in the first place?

  • Shaun Chapoose:

    It was an actual recognition of Native Americans and their history and their importance.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Shaun Chapoose says he wants Americans to enjoy the land, too, with stronger protections. A leader of the Ute Tribe, Chapoose also takes a long view of a land where tribal people have lived for centuries.

    He was part of a five-tribe coalition that led the effort to establish the monument, which would be partly managed by Native Americans.

  • Shaun Chapoose:

    Bears Ears, the monument, is the headline, but the fight itself goes far beyond just monuments. It goes to the relationship of the United States government with federally recognized tribes and treaty rights, which existed long before some of the states did.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The monument is a flash point, you're saying, and the real issue is what?

  • Shaun Chapoose:

    A broader land grab of federal lands and Indian lands and raw resources.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For potential development?

  • Shaun Chapoose:

    Oh, yes. It's all about money. It's money-driven.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's what many see in the Bears Ears dispute. The energy industry in this area, uranium mining, oil and gas drilling, has been a boom-and-bust business. It's limited today, but an open question about future technology's ability to make extraction profitable.

    A New York Times investigation of Department of Interior e-mails showed oil and gas exploration was a consideration in reducing the monument size.

  • Shaun Chapoose:

    The demand for that type of resource is not going away, and they're looking for new areas or new locations to do more development.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But opponents of the monument, like rancher Bruce Adams, say fears of development are overblown.

  • Bruce Adams:

    I haven't seen any oil and gas exploration out there in the last 30 or 40 years. But you don't know what's down there. There may be some way to extract it. But I can tell you, the BLM has enough protections on that area that it would very, very difficult, if not impossible, for the oil and gas industry to go out there and start exploring for oil and gas today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Whatever might be underground, the archaeological treasures above are indisputable.

    President Obama's proclamation cited more than 100,000 cultural objects from at least 10,000 years of human history.

  • Josh Ewing:

    The archaeology of Bears Ears is some of the best preserved in the United States.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Josh Ewing, head of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a group working to protect Bears Ears' cultural heritage, took us to a huge rock panel of paintings that go back at least 7,000 years, figures and animals from different periods, and this star attraction.

  • Josh Ewing:

    What you first see is a bison, which is superimposed on top of a mammoth, which makes us think that this may be the oldest rock art in North America.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But this site along San Juan River just outside the town of Bluff, was cut out of the monument by President Trump's decree.

  • Josh Ewing:

    I cannot for the life of me figure out the logic for what President Trump left in and what he kicked out of the monument. We estimate 75 percent of the archaeology of the original monument was cut out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ewing's group is now building a visitors center to educate the growing numbers of people coming here. They have also joined in a lawsuit claiming President Trump didn't have the authority to reduce the size of the monument, and that doing so puts cultural antiquities at risk.

  • Rep. John Curtis:

    Everybody agrees this land should be protected. This is universal. The real question comes down to who gets to make the decisions and how is it protected.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Amid this legal limbo, Republican Congressman John Curtis, who represents this area, has introduced legislation to codify into law the reduced size of the monument, but he argues he's added sufficient protections for the surrounding lands as well.

  • Rep. John Curtis:

    The Antiquities Act is not the best tool to protect our land. The best tool is Congress. Congress moving is able to add meat to the bones, is able to add detail that an Antiquities Act could never do. If they're pinning their hopes on the lawsuits, that means that we go a decade without any decision about what should be done with this land. That's not a good solution.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the meantime, the area where paleontologist Irmis and his team are working is no longer in the national monument.

    Irmis, a state employee, didn't want to comment directly on the monument, but did say this-

  • Randall Irmis:

    Whatever happens, I think, really, it's important to continue protecting and preserving the world-class paleontological resources that are out here throughout this area.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown inside and out of the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah.

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