This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
It was the right thing to do.
The designation of a Bears Ears National Monument, covering 1.35 million acres of southeastern Utah, was announced Wednesday from the White House. It is somewhat smaller than the 1.9 million acres that had been sought by an alliance of Native American tribal governments in order to protect lands and artifacts they consider sacred from continued encroachment of irresponsible pillaging and short-sighted mineral extraction.
President Obama's decision was followed, predictably, by some wrong things.
Utah officials immediately bloviated their displeasure and disgust, wrongly dismissing the designation as a unilateral abuse of presidential power though it is clearly authorized under the 1906 Antiquities Act and referring to it as a "Midnight Monument" even though the process has been ongoing for many months.
Utah politicians now threaten legislative, judicial and, once the presidency passes to Donald Trump, executive means to claw back, reduce or completely undo the monument's creation. Or even sabotage the Antiquities Act. They will no doubt expend much time, energy and Utah taxpayers money in what should be a fruitless, and what will definitely be an embarrassing, crusade to deprive the tribes of one of the few political victories they have ever seen.
The monument is the culmination of a lot of hard work and cooperation among the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Mountain Ute and Zuni governments, supported by dozens of other tribal governments. To them, Bears Ears is more than a pretty spot on a map, more than a place strewn with ancient artifacts. It is a holy place, a place where Navajos in particular took refuge when so many of their kin were being, as Navajo President Russell Begaye recalled Wednesday, marched away at U.S. Cavalry gunpoint.
Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz will continue to tout their alternative, a bill known as the Public Lands Initiative, as a superior means of protecting tribal interests in a way that also factors in the concerns of other stakeholders. And a real legislative process, one that truly sought to work out the rival interests of all parties, would indeed have been preferable to even the best-intentioned presidential edict.
(It would also have been better if Obama had visited Bears Ears himself to make the announcement, rather than have it announced while he was on vacation in Hawaii.)
But, early on, the PLI process went completely off the rails. It ignored the tribes and granted an effective veto power to the relevant county governments, mostly dominated by people who see the boom-and-bust promises of oil drilling and potash mining as their only economically viable future.
What should happen now is some of the cooperation that Bishop and Chaffetz always said they supported. Because still to come, even if nobody manages to undo what Obama has done, is designing the plans and procedures the federal government will use to manage the monument, allocate its resources and define the precise role tribal governments and their local constituents will have in the day-to-day life of the monument.
That is a process that could still cut against the tribes or, if Utahns choose to go pout in the corner, ignore the interests of area communities about as much as monument opponents claim it will.
Real leadership on the part of Utah's elected officials will not be making sure everything falls apart so they can say I told you so. Leadership will now mean making the best of what they see as a bad situation, recognizing the promise of preservation and tourism as the only truly sustainable economic hopes for the future of the region.
This process isn't over. And it will be up to Utah's elected leaders to stop crossing their arms, dragging their heels and holding their breath and making the future of the Bears Ears the best it can be.