Tribal Collaborative Management at Bears Ears National Monument

by Ruben Pacheco

The Bears Ears National Monument (BENM) remains one of the most cherished landscapes in North America. The entire Bears Ears region contains spectacular paleontological remnants, palatial geological formations, biodiverse and breathtaking plant and animal life, world-class recreation opportunities, and archeological evidence of tens of thousands of years of human habitation.

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The Tribes have been in the region since Time Immemorial.

Photo: Michael A. Estrada

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC) is invested in protecting these “resources,” but we contest the idea that this landscape’s value can be reduced to its parts. To think about this landscape in terms of the potential resources that humans can extract from it is an act of commodification and simply recreates a colonial attitude towards this sacred place. The sacred and cultural sites are too numerous to mention, and the entire landscape is culturally and spiritually significant. To rehash an old cliché, the Bears Ears landscape is, indeed, greater than the sum of its parts.

For the five Tribes of the BEITC, the value-added from protecting Bears Ears is not derived from these resources, rather this sacred landscape is worth protecting because it is the ancestral homelands of the Coalition Tribes. It remains a place of worship, and all its elements – from the minerals in the ground to clear night skies – are sacred.

Bears Ears is a living landscape and an opportunity for us to all come together. Indigneous people go to Bears Ears to connect with their ancestors.

Photo: Michael A. Estrada

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The Coalition Tribes have made significant strides towards ensuring that Bears Ears will be stewarded by Indigenous perspectives. Throughout 2022, the Coalition held nine in-person meetings with Tribal leaders and the Coalition’s Cultural Resources Subcommittee; many of these meetings were with our collaborative management partners from the US Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

These important meetings provide the opportunity for the Coalition Tribes to educate agency personnel about Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and have proven to be a place for Tribes to come together to heal, promote inter-Tribal relations, and allow for better understanding of one another. These meetings have also created space to strategize and collaborate for the protection of the Bears Ears cultural landscape.

A Brief History of the Monument

The five Tribes, along with grassroots activists, have been working for decades to secure protections for the Bears Ears landscape. In 2015, the Tribes petitioned President Obama to recognize 1.9 million acres as a national monument. In December of 2016, under the authority granted by the Antiquities Act, President Obama created a 1.35-million-acre national monument and recognized the five Tribes’ role in its management. The mechanism President Obama used is an Inter-Tribal Commission of five members, one from each Tribe. As described in the Proclamation, the Bears Ears Commission’s role is to manage the Monument collaboratively with the Forest Service and the BLM. To the dismay of the Tribes and their allies, however, the first iteration of the BENM was short-lived. In December of 2017, the Monument was reduced by 85% and the Tribes’ role as collaborative managers was undermined by (twice impeached) President Trump.

Trump’s reductions were challenged in litigation, which is yet unresolved. In 2021, President Biden restored the BENM and reestablished the Bears Ears Commission’s role as a collaborative management partner overseeing the Monument. With greater protections now in place, the five tribes of the BEITC are actively engaged in collaborative management alongside federal counterparts at the BLM and the USFS.

A New Model for Tribal Management of Public Lands

Federally managed lands are adjacent to, and intersecting with, the ancestral homelands of tribal nations across the west. On these public lands, some Tribes hold treaty rights, reserving the rights to access and use these lands and resources. These treaties are an express acknowledgement that native nations were here first and their sovereign authority still extends to the resources on the lands their ancestors were removed from. The Obama and Biden Proclamations recognize Tribal sovereignty using a different mechanism - the Antiquities Act - but because the Coalition Tribes have used a sovereignty model to select their Commissioners, the result is similar.

Late in 2022, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack wrote a letter to the people of the United States introducing The First Annual Report on Tribal Co-Stewardship. Their joint letter states, “At its core, the Order recognizes the Federal Government’s unique nation-to-nation relationship with Tribal nations and that public lands and waters are the ancestral homelands of Native American and Alaska Native Tribes and the Native Hawaiian community. Indigenous people have stewarded these places since time immemorial, predating the formation of the United States and its land management agencies.”1

What Bears Ears represents is the ability of tribes to exercise their sovereign authority over their ancestral homelands and territories, which gives them a meaningful role in the management of their off-reservation ancestral homelands. Collaborative management in Bears Ears has reconnected the Coalition Tribes with their lands and resources, legally, politically, and on the ground. The moment has finally arrived in which Tribes are starting to have this opportunity to build a future for public lands management that looks much different than it has over the past 200 years.

Bears Ears Commissioners and leadership from the BLM and USFS unveil the new Signs at the Bears Ears National Monument.
Photo: Tim Peterson

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On a sunny Saturday morning in June of 2022, just outside of the Monument boundaries at the White Mesa Community Center, located on Ute Mountain Ute Tribal lands, the five Tribes signed an agreement with federal agencies codifying the collaborative management of the BENM, further securing and clarifying the role of the Coalition Tribes and the Bears Ears Commission in the areas of planning and implementation level decision making in the BENM.

Since signing this agreement, the Coalition Tribes have been advancing principles of Indigenous Stewardship and applying their Traditional Knowledge for the collaborative management of the BENM. The agreement obligates each of the five Tribal nations and both agencies to work together to achieve the multitude of goals and commitments in the Obama and Biden Proclamations establishing and restoring the BENM, as well as many of the goals of the Tribes.

Because of this extraordinary agreement, the Bears Ears National Monument will be managed differently than other federal lands. The Coalition hopes that other Tribal Nations will, also, become meaningfully involved in the management of their ancestral homelands and sacred places on public lands across North America through collaborative arrangements and agreements.

Tribal Land Management Plan

In 2022 the Coalition released their Tribal Land Management Plan (LMP)2 to the public and submitted the plan to the USFS and BLM. This plan represents the culmination of four years of coordination, hundreds of hours of inter-tribal collaboration, and extensive efforts to document the cultural and historical expertise of the five Tribes by the Coalition’s Cultural Resources Subcommittee (CRS). The CRS is composed of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and staff, Cultural Resources Officers and subject-matter experts on staff, Tribal archaeologists, Tribal Elders, and other Traditional knowledge-holders from each of the five Tribes. The LMP was also ratified by each Tribal Government before being released to the public and federal agencies.

Increased Tribal “Co-Stewardship”

Those who follow the Coalition’s work may know that the BENM is unique because it was the first National Monument to be established at the request of five sovereign Tribal Nations and the first to formally incorporate the Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in its planning mandates. When the Coalition submitted its original proposal in 2015, the Tribes requested to be included as collaborative managers of the Bears Ears living landscape. This first-of-its-kind proposal was grounded in the nation-to-nation relationship and President Obama’s proclamation recognized this relationship by creating the Bears Ears Commission. President Biden’s proclamation restoring the Monument in 2021 re-recognized the Commission as a collaborative partner for managing Bears Ears. This represents a significant step towards a co-equal land management model and away from the consultation model, which has been ineffective and frustrating to so many Tribes and their leadership and staff.

In 2022, as part of the White House’s effort to include more Indigenous Knowledge in federal decision making, Federal Agencies released specific guidance3 and memoranda for its implementation.4 In September, when the Department of the Interior released their guidance about implementing new co-stewardship agreements, the Bears Ears National Monument was included as an example of this new guidance and new direction from the Biden-Harris Administration and the cabinet Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture.5

Shortly after this, the Forest Service issued a press release about the eleven new agreements to advance Tribal co-stewardship of national forests.6 The Bears Ears National Monument was included among the highlights in their press release. We are honored to be active participants of this innovative policy advancements and, what is likely to be policy and intergovernmental reform, and we sincerely thank you for joining us on this journey.

Ruben Pacheco is the Communications and Partnerships Director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. He graduated from the University of New Mexico and lives in Albuquerque. His work is motivated by a commitment to inclusive institutions that promote well-being and justice.