Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bears Ears: False choice vs. real solution

by Matthew Anderson

...Her writing focuses on two likely outcomes: (1) President Barack Obama unilaterally designates an almost 2 million-acre national monument and incites armed insurrection in the process, or (2) we sit by and watch as priceless artifacts, ancient dwellings and sacred sites are plundered. This is a false choice that keeps us a long way from a real solution.

Like so many other similar pieces, Eilperin’s narrative fails to recognize the views of the Navajos of San Juan County — who actually live close to the Bears Ears. They believe that a monument designation would put the Bears Ears at risk as never before.

Last month I traveled to Bluff and met with members of the Aneth and Oljato chapters of the Navajo Nation. Unlike other Native Americans who have involved themselves in the national monument debate, these people call this area home and have an unparalleled connection with it. For them, the Bears Ears is more than just a place to hunt, collect firewood and gather pinyon nuts in the fall.

“The Bears Ears is part of life. That’s the place where our people, our ancestors, even us today, we still go up there and do our offerings and prayers,” Denton Ben, a leader in the community, told me. “It’s part of our heart and our mind. It’s really sacred to us.”

While Ben and other local Navajo residents are not oblivious that looting has occurred on and around their sacred mountain, they believe that public opinion and federal laws have evolved enough to mitigate the problem.

Chester Johnson of the Aneth Chapter told me, “I have read the National Historic Preservation Act — these types of ruins, special sites and trails are already protected. To impose another national monument is not necessary; it’s not going to offer more protection.”

Johnson is right. The National Historic Preservation Act enables archaeological sites to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing them further federal protections. There are also at least five other federal laws, along with a multitude of state laws and court rulings, that protect our nation’s archaeological and Native Americans’ cultural resources. A national monument designation will not significantly change the protections afforded to the Bears Ears.

What will change, however, is the number of hikers, campers and tourists who visit the area. National monument supporters acknowledge as much when they describe the proposed monument as an “economic asset.” The source of those potential economic benefits is increased tourism driven by a national monument designation.

But what will that mean for the Native Americans’ interests? This increased traffic will put the cultural resources of the Bears Ears at an increased risk of destruction and desecration — especially considering that the federal government can’t afford to provide additional law enforcement to the area.

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