At its heart, it’s a battle for homeland and sovereignty. Bears Ears, a remote section of land characterized by its distinctive red cliffs and abundance of juniper and 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 National Monument 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.