At its heart, it’s a battle for homeland and sovereignty. Bears Ears, a remote section of land lined with red cliffs and filled with juniper, sage, is at the center of a fight over who has a say in how Western landscapes are protected and managed. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama designated 1.35 million acres in Utah’s southeastern corner as the Bears Ears National Monument. But Obama’s move also renewed the fight between Westerners and Washington, and furthered the divide between those who live in the monument’s backyard, their elected leaders and those who see preservation as a vital and urgent need.
For many local San Juan County residents, the Bears Ears represents land that was occupied by their Native American ancestors, or homesteaded by their pioneer forefathers. It’s a land that they’re deeply connected to, land they feel is meant for them to use and manage. Most local monument opponents hold the belief that they — not environmentalists from Salt Lake City, not bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., not backpackers who trek through the canyons once a year — are the best stewards of the place. “Outsiders,” including Native Americans from other regions, shouldn't be allowed to determine the land’s fate.
But tribal leaders in favor of the monument don’t see themselves as outsiders. For them, Bears Ears is a connection to their past, one where their ancestors lived. Over thirteen tribes trace their lineage to this place that contains over 100,000 archeological and cultural sites. Ancient ruins, burial grounds, kivas and petroglyphs are scattered throughout its mesas and canyons. The desire to protect Bears Ears created an unprecedented coalition of Intermountain tribes. And the coalition will continue to push for a unique management role, where Native American voices are at the forefront in determining policy for the Monument.
The whole situation is complicated by a change in leadership in Washington D.C. that is looking at shrinking the monument and reclassifying the land. Tensions are mounting. Law suits are pending. As the political battle wages, it’s easy to forget the unique landscape that many call sacred, special, or vital.
This one hour documentary explores how history and language shape our views and relationship to the land, what Western lands mean to us, and who should have control over them. Along with the voices of those who are connected to the place, the landscape is also a featured character. The film will highlight why the region is special. Although the monument has been designated, the battle over its future and how to manage it is just beginning. But many question if it is even possible to find consensus among deep divisions. The question remains, how can Utah’s diverse voices and interests in this extraordinary landscape find common ground?