Under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, U.S. presidents have the authority to set aside millions of acres of public land for historical purposes. When former President Barack Obama did just that in one of his last acts as president, he sparked a heated debate that would carry into the next presidency.
Last December, Obama designated 1.35 million acres of public land in San Juan County, Utah, as the Bears Ears National Monument. As the 15,000 residents of San Juan County can attest, it is a place of ancient cliff dwellings, towering mesas, and unparalleled beauty.
Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based Atlas Network partner, launched a campaign to rescind the monument and amend the Antiquities Act at large. The Institute seeks to adjust the Act into a law that allows local voices to safeguard the environment, secure archaeological sites, and protect rural communities.
“For residents of San Juan County, their way of life depends on access to public lands and the life-sustaining resources they provide,” stated Matt Anderson, policy analyst at the Sutherland Institute. “When a third of this county was designated as the new Bears Ears National Monument, it was not to benefit local residents, but deep-pocketed environmental groups, corporate interests and wealthy celebrities.”
The Antiquities Act is structured so that presidents are incentivized to sign away millions of acres of land with little input from locals — such as third-generation rancher Zeb Dalton, Navajo medicine woman Grandma Betty Jones, and farmer Elmer Hurst, all of whom depend on access to Bears Ears for their livelihoods.
“It’s time we amend the Antiquities Act so that local opinions and knowledge of the land are incorporated into the monument designation process,” Anderson commented. “Representation and conservation are not mutually exclusive.”
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has been extremely supportive of Sutherland Institute’s mission. In June, after touring San Juan County and speaking with Bears Ears locals, Zinke sent a recommendation to President Donald Trump suggesting a revision of the monument’s boundaries.
Together, this team may reinstate Bears Ears to the locals and eventually, amend the Antiquities Act entirely.