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A Battle is Being Waged to Save Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon National Parks

“It was really a matter of lobbyists scratching each other’s backs. ‘We’ll throw a pile of coal money at trying to destroy Bears Ears, if you grazing chaps will throw some cow money at our efforts to mine GSENM and Chaco. Everybody wins!’”

During his tenure, Barack Obama gave roughly 553 million acres of land national protection (more than even famed conservationist Theodore Roosevelt) by establishing or adding to 29 national monuments, signaling an unprecedented commitment to protecting culturally and historically significant American land.

However, since his election, conservationists have worried Donald Trump and his administration were going to greatly reduce the amount of sacred, tribal land protected under federal law.

One of the biggest blows the administration has dealt to the indigenous nations of the southwestern United States is the 2017 proclamation that reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument to a mere 15 percent of its former size.

Lawsuits Hope to Save Bears Ears

Trump’s administration used the Antiquities Act to justify his proclamation, a move that many have contended is illegal under federal law. Several lawsuits have been filed attempting to override the federal proclamation. Many people are appalled at the use of legislation supposed to protect national monuments being used to destroy them. The Antiquities Act was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and gave the federal government the power to create national monuments from public lands.

“The decision to drastically reduce Bears Ears is nothing short of appalling,” Paul F. Reed, a preservation archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest, told Citizen Truth. “Before Bears Ears, the Antiquity Act has never been used to reduce the size of a monument declared by a prior President. If the reduction stands, then no National Park or Monument is truly protected.”

Protest to save Bears Ears. (Photo: KristineL761)

Protest to save Bears Ears. (Photo: KristineL761)

The outcome of the lawsuits being filed to save Bears Ears will determine more than the fate of just one national monument, as the precedent that will be set if Trump’s proclamation is allowed to stand will put all national parks and monuments in jeopardy.

R.E. Burrillo, an archaeologist currently working at Bears Ears, told Citizen Truth that Trump’s proclamation was infuriating and nonsensical.

“In terms of legal precedent, what’s both ironic and infuriating about the monument reduction is that the primary GOP complaint about the Antiquities Act is it gives too much power to the executive branch. Expanding its functional definition to allow the executive to both create and destroy national monuments is actually an expansion of that power.

“Whether regarded from a right- or left-leaning perspective, it takes something that’s already dangerously ambiguous to interpret and expands it. That’s extremely dangerous in terms of protection and management of resources. It precipitates a ping-pong situation where lands can flop between elevated protection and no protection on a four-year basis, which is just plain ridiculous,” Burrillo said.

Dr. William D. Lipe, archaeologist and Professor Emeritus at Washington State University, echoed Burrillo’s concerns to Citizen Truth.

“If the Trump administration’s effort to dramatically reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument survives challenges in federal courts, it would represent a very large change in application of the 1906 Antiquities Act – because it would be an unprecedented reduction by executive action of a monument proclaimed by a previous president.  This might also encourage future executive assaults on other laws that have been used to protect cultural and environmental resources on the federal public lands.”

The Antiquities Act was designed to protect historically important and culturally significant land in the United States, not to give the executive branch the final say on the protection and use of these areas. The act gives the executive branch the power to create a national monument or expand an existing one using a presidential proclamation, but currently only Congress has the power to remove land from these areas.

Since the decision to reduce the size of Bears Ears was made, tribal officials have worried their sacred land is now no longer protected and vulnerable to vandalism, as Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva told PBS Arizona.

“There’s a lot of vandalism, there’s a lot of looting and that still continues,” Tenakhongva said. “So that is the fear that Hopi has because we have our spiritual ties to the kivas there in Bears Ears.”

Oil and Gas Deposits in the Sacred Land Spurs Decision to Shrink the Size of Bears Ears

The parts of Bears Ears that are no longer protected are filled with significant archaeological sites, and the area is considered sacred ground by nearly all of the indigenous cultures living in the area. The four major languages of the region, Ute, Dine, Hopi and Zuni, all refer to the area as “Bears Ears,” signifying the deep spiritual connection this land has to the spirit of the bear. The historical and cultural importance of Bears Ears is immense and awe-inspiring.

“The Bears Ears area has been more-or-less continuously occupied by indigenous peoples for about 13,000 years. There are 30,000 known archaeological sites, most of them ancestral to the modern Pueblo peoples (e.g., Hopi and Zuni), and there’s an estimated total of about 100,000 sites.  Moreover, it is a part of the sacred geography of at least 26 different tribes,” Burrillo said.

The land that the Bears Ears National Monument occupies is not only sacred ground for numerous different indigenous American cultures, but it also contains invaluable information about the history of the region.

However, many speculate that the decision to shrink the size of Bears Ears was mostly motivated by interests related to the oil and natural gas deposits located in land protected due to its designation as part of a national monument. Making the issue even more convoluted, the justification for opening up historically significant and culturally sacred land for resource extraction was justified under the argument that the money from these ventures would help fund Utah public schools.

The New York Times reported that in March of 2017 representatives from the office of Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, sent emails to the federal Department of the Interior stating, “Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting a boundary change for the southeast portion of the Bears Ears monument.” According to the email, the “new boundary depicted on the map would resolve all known mineral conflicts for SITLA [School and Institutional Trust Land Administration] within the Bears Ears.”

This map was used as the basis for Trump’s massive reduction in the size of the Bears Ears monument in 2017, which ended up taking away even more land from the monument than was originally suggested by Hatch’s staffers.

However, Burrillo warns that fossil fuel extraction is actually impractical. “Fossil fuels are essentially non-existent within the original BENM [Bears Ears National Monument] boundary. They’re there, sort of, but not in any great store and not in any setting where it’s economically feasible to go after them,” Burrillo told Citizen Truth.

“It was really a matter of lobbyists scratching each other’s backs. ‘We’ll throw a pile of coal money at trying to destroy Bears Ears, if you grazing chaps will throw some cow money at our efforts to mine GSENM and Chaco. Everybody wins!’”

This type of political jockeying shows the danger of the quid pro quo nature of lobbying work – where policy is adopted without understanding the consequences and benefiting lobbyists, politicians and CEOs while Americans and American heritage pay the cost.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Photo via Wikimedia)

Other Sites Threatened by Political Interests

Another important site that has recently been threatened by corporate and political interests is Chaco Canyon, formally known as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“Chaco Canyon was the center of a thriving society that flourished in the Four Corners region of New Mexico from 850-1150 CE. The Chacoans and affiliated Pueblo groups built hundreds of great house pueblo structures across the region and connected many of these places with kilometers of roads and other landscape features. At its peak, the Chacoan world was as large as the country of Ireland and tens of thousands of people were participants,” said Reed, who is also a noted Chaco Canyon scholar.

The cultural and historical significance of Chaco Canyon is immense, but archaeologists and anthropologists still are not certain whether it was the urban political center of the Chaco Culture or a sparsely populated ceremonial site that attracted visitors from as far away as the Mayan states in Mexico.

Furthermore, the Chacoan people abruptly left the site around 1100 CE, a mystery that still continues to puzzle archaeologists and scholars. However, fracking and natural gas extraction might make it so this mystery is never solved, and valuable understanding about the Chaco culture could be forever lost.

Many important areas outside of the confines of the National Park have yet to be excavated, and some scholars believe that these sites could hold the key to understanding the Chaco culture. Thomas Vaughn, a former superintendent of Chaco Canyon, believes that answers might lie outside of the confines of the canyon, in the unprotected area known as the San Juan Basin. He’s quick to point out that “Chaco is a much bigger story than what’s in that canyon,” as he told the Sierra Club.

Reed agrees that many areas of historical and anthropological significance are not protected by the park, adding that “Chaco Culture National Historic Park protects only a small fraction of the important archaeological and cultural sites across this several millions acre area.”

The San Juan Basin is also the site of more than 40,000 vertical wells for natural gas and oil extraction, and the Bureau of Land Management’s current plan allows for up to 5,600 more to be placed over the next couple of years.

In the past few months, the Bureau of Land Management has offered up more land right next to Chaco Canyon for sale to energy companies. Conservationists believe there’s a good chance that oil and natural gas extraction in these zones could severely damage areas of immense religious and cultural importance, as well as destroy irreplaceable anthropological evidence and its context.

A temporary injunction was recently issued by a federal judge blocking the sale of the land, but this is not a permanent measure and it is unlikely to remain in place as a safeguard for long.

Archaeology and Cultural Landscapes

Lipe told Citizen Truth about the potential damage to Chaco Canyon that is anticipated and explained the concept of a “cultural landscape.”

“The proposed economic developments are likely to interfere with the visual and spiritual understanding and appreciation of the cultural landscape surrounding the Chaco Historical Park; physically damage subtle archaeological features such as roads and shrines that represent the expansion of Chacoan cultural and political influence into the region surrounding the park; and change the physical context of individual archaeological and cultural sites enough to interfere with their appreciation and significance by Native descendants of the Chacoans and by the general public. That is, the Chacoans created a ‘cultural landscape’ that extends into public lands outside the boundaries of the national park itself.”

This idea of a cultural landscape is one that is beginning to be a major topic in the field of archaeology. Paul Ermigiotti, an archaeologist and educator at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, explains that “the idea of cultural landscape is so much more than just the archaeological sites or ancestral villages; mountains, mesas, streams, even the plants, rocks and wildlife are important in Indigenous ways of knowing and relating to a place.”

Until fairly recently, the idea of archaeological preservation was based on maintaining and protecting specific sites and areas that were deemed worthy of conservation. The mentality is still present in the way that legislation is used to protect these areas, but modern archaeologists argue that this approach leaves many important aspects of a site’s cultural legacy unprotected.

“Existing historic preservation laws tend to focus on preservation of individual archaeological and historical sites, but in general are not a very good fit for cultural landscape preservation of the sort that’s being argued about here,” Lipe said.

Big Oil’s Influence Grows

Photo of protestors in New Orleans protesting big oil. (Photo: nfrogmation of New Orleans)

Photo of protestors in New Orleans protesting big oil. (Photo: nfrogmation of New Orleans)

Large oil companies have gained an unprecedented amount of government influence in the past few years. David Bernhardt, who was formerly an attorney for the Independent Petroleum Association of America and who has spent years lobbying for the oil industry in Washington, was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Interior in August of last year.

Bernhardt is currently serving as the Acting Secretary of the Interior, making him the final authority on use and exploitation of areas protected and owned by the federal government.

Given that the Department of the Interior is supposed to protect the valuable resources that America’s land has to offer, the decision to place someone who has actively helped to destroy these areas is alarming to conservationists, if not seen as downright devious.

Many of America’s most historic and culturally significant areas are also rich in national resources; this is one of the reasons that these areas were developed and held sacred by American Indian tribes.

“The push to produce more oil and gas in this country is the biggest threat to our Nation’s ancient heritage,” Reed warns.

“If we allow oil-gas and other industrial interests to lease all land without regards to protection of sensitive cultural and natural areas, we will lose much of what makes Chaco and other areas special. Our parks and monuments will become small islands in this sea of crushing development and their significance and value to Native American people and the American public will be compromised forever. We must prevent this from happening,” Reed added.

The possibility of land in and around the Chaco Canyon site being opened up to fracking and other forms of natural gas extraction is worrisome in many ways. Not only is this tantamount to desecrating a sacred and historically significant archaeological area, but it also presents many concerning problems from an environmental and public health standpoint.

The southwestern United States is an arid, desert region, and water is an incredibly valuable and scarce resource. However, fracking “uses precious water in a very arid landscape and utilizes chemicals that could pose serious health problems, especially in the greater Chaco region located in the Navajo reservation where people are spread out across the landscape,” according to Ermigiotti.

“I think an additional threat to the archaeological landscape is what effect does systemic testing and fracking have on the stability of the fragile architecture. How does the creation of roads and infrastructure affect the cultural and natural landscape?” he added.

Indigenous Politicians Protecting Sacred Sites Face Severe Opposition

Indigenous politicians who have made it a priority to protect Bears Ears and other sacred sites such as Chaco Canyon have faced severe opposition. Willie Grayeyes, a Democratic politician from the Navajo nation who recently won a seat on the San Juan County Commission in Utah, was almost denied the right to run in the election when his residency status was called into question by Republican opponents.

Wendy Black, a Republican politician from Blanding, Utah, filed a voter-registration challenge form with the county auditor, but she did so after the deadline to file such a challenge in relation to the upcoming election. Nonetheless, the county auditor, John David Nielson, approved the backdated form, thereby making his office complicit in attempting to deny Grayeyes his constitutional right to run for office.

Judge David Nuffer of the U.S. District Court ruled the challenge void, claiming that it lacked sufficient evidence and violated Grayeyes’ 14th amendment rights to due process.

“The timeline to determine a candidacy challenge was not complied with, and Defendant Nielson improperly sought to expand that timeframe by using the voter challenge statute to make a backdoor challenge to Plaintiff Grayeyes’s candidacy. Defendant Nielson overstepped his role by taking on a prosecutorial role; an investigative role; and directing Ms. Black to complete a voter challenge. He also falsified the voter challenge once received,” Nuffer said.

There has been a visible opposition movement working to protect these areas growing in size and power, but without the support of the general American public, large corporate and political interests will most likely prevail.

“The public has a huge role to play in protecting these fragile, amazing places of our past and concerned citizens need to get involved, contact the Agencies, and let our Congressional Delegation know how worried they are about rampant, uncontrolled oil-gas development,” Reed said.

Many different groups such as Utah Dine Bikeyah, Grand Canyon Trust, and even outdoor wear giant Patagonia, are working to protect areas like Bears Ears National Monument, but an educated and concerned populace is essential to their cause.


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Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally in 2016 at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.


  1. Kurt April 10, 2019

    When I say money is a weapon this is one of the issues Im speaking of.
    T Roosevelt was not the great American hero’s that he is made out to be. He was a capitalist, and a look at what he did during his life time will reflect just what a CAPITALIST is
    and how money is used against humanity
    Teddy a hero of the Spanish American war.
    So how did that war start? The sinking of the Main in Havana harbor. To this day there is no evidence that the Spanish sunk the Main.
    Who was secretary of the Navy when that happened? TEDDY!
    Mark Twain thought Teddy was the best President of all for removing the corrupt Spanish government, that kept the Cubans in poverty. Until he visited Cuba to find that Teddy allowed corrupt American gangsters to keep the Cubans in poverty. After that Twain referred to Teddy as the worst.
    The Panama Canal! Truly a monumental accomplishment. Until you find out that Panama wasn’t Panama. It was Colombia,
    and Colombia didn’t want a canal. Fortunately
    right about that time a group if rebels caused a revolution that separated what is now Panama from Colombia. “Could it have been the secret service, or OSS who were the rebels?
    Now we have the National Park’s. We also had a treaty that said that unused government land went back to the Indians.
    So Teddy reserved it for the future when daddy big bucks might have a use for it, and here we are today fighting for Indian land,
    or national park land that was stol from the Indians under the guise of National Park’s.
    So who in this country has any rights.
    The corrupt greedy investment banker’s.
    This is what makes me believe with all my heart that the only way humanity will ever be anything more than livestock to the investment bankers is to NATIONALIZE everything and outlaw banks and money.
    In other words to go beyond Communism.
    The Communists didn’t bring me to this conclusion. The Warmongering, stealing, lying, treasonous, tyrannical, investment bankers did.


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