Public process points to Bears Ears’ potential — and challenges

By: - October 14, 2022 6:31 am

Ancient granaries, part of the House on Fire ruins are shown here in the South Fork of Mule Canyon in the Bears Ears National Monument. (Photo by George Frey / Getty Images)

A process to create a first-of-its-kind plan for co-management of the Bears Ears National Monument is nearing the end of an initial phase.  

In the last of the public engagement sessions held in Albuquerque by federal agencies, members of the public shared comments Wednesday, while representatives offered maps and information about current land management on the monument. 

As a result of a landmark agreement, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition will collaborate with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to manage the monument.

While many acknowledge the potential of the co-management model, comments from participants reveal the challenges ahead.

Ruben Pacheco, Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (Photo by Sara Van Note for Source NM)

Ruben Pacheco is the spokesperson for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. He said the process represents a “great opportunity” for federal agencies to take seriously the Biden administration’s commitment to value Indigenous traditional knowledge in developing policy. “There’s a lot of interest in making sure that the tribes have meaningful involvement in the management of Bears Ears,” he said.

Jake Palma, field manager for the local BLM field office, said he’s observed a recent increase in recreation on the monument. Protecting resources while uses like recreation continue is a challenge, as is “learning how to engage with tribal nations,” he said,.  

Some people who attended expressed concerns about development on the monument, including impacts to sacred sites and access for Indigenous people. 

Paul Reed is an archaeologist with the organization Archaeology Southwest, who said he’s concerned that natural resources and cultural resources are not being adequately protected. “This is our newest national monument, but the infrastructure is not in place,” he said, including sufficient staffing to address the impact of recreation.   

And while the five tribes within the coalition have different viewpoints on specific development issues, Pacheco said the coalition has proposed a plan for preserving the landscape based on traditional ecological knowledge for inclusion in the final management plan.  

Five coalition tribes — the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ute Indian tribes — are parties to the Inter-Governmental Cooperative Agreement. That means many tribes in the region, including other Pueblo tribes, are not included in leadership roles. 

Some attendees criticized this lack of inclusion, as well as other elements of the planning process. 

Tribal leaders praise Haaland and the US government for restoring Bears Ears

Pacheco said “a lot of tribal communities have been skeptical of this process” because of a lack of interpretation in Native languages, and formal presentations that could be “intimidating.” 

Doreen Bird (Kewa) said the voices of tribal members not from the five-tribe coalition were missing from the process. “There’s so many more people with ties to Bears Ears region that don’t get engaged” in the listening sessions, she said. “I don’t feel that these approaches are culturally appropriate for Pueblo people.” She noted a lack of elders and children at the event as one example. 

Yet some see the plan as a potential model for other tribes. “This could be a way for all tribal nations in the West to have a say in how their ancestral homelands are managed,” Pacheco said.

Talavi Cook (Ohkay Owingeh, Hopi, Diné) is the environmental health and justice program manager for Tewa Women United. She sees co-management as an important part of the process of returning land to tribes. “The first step was to change it into a monument to protect it from oil and gas, and fracking,” she said. Now, “we want to get into that transition mode” toward land back to tribes, she said.

Carleton Bowekaty is Zuni’s lieutenant governor and represents the tribe on the Inter-Tribal Coalition. He said federal agencies “often look at the land as an object,” while the coalition sees it as “a living entity that deserves respect.”  He said they’re working to develop management that protects sacred sites, and while the five tribes have sometimes been at odds, in Bears Ears they “will work on this jointly together.”

For Bird’s part, she said she hopes the final plan will include a special place for people with ancestral ties to the land to eat, sing and “and have meaningful connections to the land, not as tourists, but as people who are coming home.”


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Sara Van Note
Sara Van Note

Sara Van Note is a print and audio journalist based in New Mexico. She’s inspired by birdsong and fascinated by stories of resistance and resilience. Her stories have appeared in various media outlets including PRI’s The World, NPR’s Latino USA, the Christian Science Monitor, bioGraphic and Undark.