Indirect bounce light creates colors in an ancient interior hallway below a sloping layered cliff wall in the late 13th century Moon House in McCloyd Canyon, Bears Ears National Monument.

A Monumental Model

How the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is creating a new way to manage public lands sacred to their Indigenous inhabitants.

In June 2022, leaders from five sovereign tribal nations united to make a positive and promising step forward with the federal government. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC)—composed of the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe , Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe—established a historic, cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM for the management of Bears Ears National Monument. Located in southeastern Utah, the monument covers more than 1.36 million acres of sandstone canyons and mesas rich with rock art, cliff dwellings and ancient fossil beds—sites that are sacred from a cultural perspective, but that also provide habitat for a wealth of sensitive animal and plant species, in addition to housing energy and mineral development potential (notably for uranium/vanadium, with low potential for for oil and gas), as well as a long list of world-class outdoor recreation opportunities.

Managing such vast lands marked by so many resources and overlapping interests is a huge proposition. Fortunately, the dry ink on the collaborative plan means that a tremendous amount of expertise and wisdom can drive more equitable management. Government agencies will have a say, organized and equipped to moderate public and commercial activity with conservation and preservation needs. But now the federal role is balanced and enhanced by the collective knowledge of the people indigenous to the region, who will bring thousands of years of land-management perspective and expertise to the table. 

Historical Context

Bears Ears gets its name from two mesas that rise nearly 9,000 feet above the Utah desert. The monument includes upwards of 100,000 sacred sites, as well as an incalculable number of archaeological, paleontological and geological treasures. In addition to rock art (human-made markings), there are cliff dwellings, hogans, granaries, and more modern structures from the days of Westward expansion. Beyond that rich Indigenous history, the region is also home to farmers, ranchers, miners, and a year-round destination for climbers, rafters, and hikers. 

The co-management agreement is a long overdue moment in the history of federal land management policy. The plan is unique in that it provides local tribes equal footing with federal agencies. The five tribes, whose ancestral lands make up Bears Ears, will have their voices accounted for in the planning and management of the monument referred to in their Native languages as Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, all of which mean “Bears Ears.”

Anasazi Ruins Lower Mule Canyon Bears Ears National Monument

What Role Will BEITC Play?

The coalition has been working in tandem with federal agencies to set expectations for what the seat at the table looks like. One key to the coalition’s presence, says BEITC Co-Director Charissa Wahwasuck-Jessepe, is the fed’s commitment to utilizing tribal expertise in the day-to-day management of the monument. Though details are still in the works on an operational level, visitors can expect forthcoming updates on some permitting, signage (and what languages appear on them), plus cultural site boundaries.

“We are working to create programming that makes our tribal messaging more digestible,” says Wahwasuck-Jessepe. “We need to be very clear about what visitation looks like and what activities are appropriate. It may mean more signs, and perhaps a wider permit system, so we can better manage the amount of people visiting sites that are in delicate condition.”

If you’re one of those visitors, the hope is more attention to, and appreciation of the surroundings. “When people visit without being conscious of the sacred nature,” Wahwasuck-Jessepe notes, “it can interrupt the entire resource. We’d rather people admire these places from afar, not touch and not take pictures. When people go inside a structure, they are participating in erasing our connections with the landscape.”  

Preserving those connections, Wahwasuck-Jessepe says, is the driving principle of developing best conservation practices for years to come. “We refer to our approach as Earth to Sky management,” she says of the coalition’s more holistic view. “For example, rather than simply preserving a hogan, we prefer to preserve the site around the hogan to show how it is part of the bigger landscape. This could include how the wind moves, or what the plants or water around the building tells us about how the site was used. We look at the ecosystem, because that is a great part of what we want to protect.”

For the past couple of years, the coalition worked on developing a land plan based on such integral tribal knowledge of the region as its caretakers “since time immemorial…long before the U.S. was formed,” Wahwasuck-Jessepe notes. That plan has been submitted to the federal agencies, and BEITC is in the process of helping to intertwine the plan with the recommendations from other agencies.

A Path for Future Collaboration

Part of what is so inspiring about BEITC and the collaborative management plan is that it is meant to be a portable model for other tribes, so that other Indigenous people can have a greater say on how their traditional lands are managed. “We have recognized the opportunity this model represents—our having a seat at the table and having the authority to make decisions on par with federal agencies,” says Wahwasuck-Jessepe. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been on board, but it is the first time tribes have been codified as equal decision makers with a national monument.”

And to help extend the co-management model and create future caretakers, the BEITC is launching a pilot program this fall in Arch Canyon, where tribal elders and youths will build a buck and rail fence together. The project scope is small, but its underlying intention fuels the longevity of the coalition’s plans: priming the exchange of stories and knowledge between generations to continue the tribes’ vested connection to the landscape.

Tips for Visiting Bears Ears

Ready to experience this unique landscape for yourself? There are many ways to visit the monument, but Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff, Utah, is a nice place to start. Operated by Friends of Cedar Mesa, the center offers updated information for paddlers, climbers, hikers, backpackers and other outdoor explorers. “Friends of Cedar Mesa witnesses the significant impacts that increased visitation has on this vitally important cultural landscape,” explains Joe Neuhof, executive director of the nonprofit. “Working with the tribes, land managers and communities, we strive to lessen these impacts through education programs at our Bears Ears Education Center and through the Visit With Respect national campaign.” Visitors should also respect these simple guidelines (with a few added tips on the monument’s best outdoor activities) to enjoy and to help preserve Bears Ears for generations to come. 

— The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was recently named a grant-partner recipient of the Public Lands Fund

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.