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March 29, 2019
Utah Navajos Continue Fight Against Expanded Bears Ears National Monument

By Joe Hammond

The recent decision by the County Commission to reverse its previous position and condemn the Trump administration move to vastly reduce the size of the protected area was lauded by out of state environmentalists and some Native American groups. But Navajos who live closest to the expanded Bears Ears National Monument are angered by the decision.

“Where are we going to get the dead wood we collect if there is a monument?” says Anna Tom, a Navajo who lives on nearby McCracken Mesa and spoke out against the vote, “We collect deadwood summer and winter and its help us, I raised those issues before but, they didn’t care.”

Anna Tom is a member of the Anneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation who along with the Blue Mountain Dine, another Navajo group, have consistently opposed the Bears Ears National Monument as an encroachment on their land use rights.

Access to firewood may seem a minor issue, but it is not for local Navajos like Tom who live in the area and rely on collected wood to provide heating. Homes visited by a reporter for the American Media Institute on McCracken Mesa do not have electricity or running water. One of those homes is owned by Tom’s mother a nonagenarian Navajo Medicine woman who burns wood to heat her home.

While the monument declaration left open the possibility of continued wood-collection many locals fear that over time that access right will be eroded. Other national monuments in the Southwest do not allow firewood collection.

The monument takes its name from two 9,000 ft. buttes covered with ponderosa and pine trees. The area is central to Navajo creation myths and today contains ruins considered sacred by several Native American groups. Although all parties agree that area should be protected, at issue was the Obama administration’s 2016 move to designate a far greater area – 1.35 million acres – for protection. Opponents said this was an abuse of power that had less to do with preserving sacred land than stopping commercial use of the land by energy and mineral companies.

Last year, the Trump administration moved to reduce the size of the Bear Ears Monument by 85 percent.

The Navajo Nation and environmental groups opposed that decision.

Tom’s mother is a survivor of the 1920s Posey War which marked the last armed conflict between Native Americans and the Federal government until the 1960s.

San Juan Country Utah was founded in 1880 and is one of the most remote regions in the lower 48 states. The county is home to some 15,000 people of whom roughly half are Native Americans. The local grocery store is often forced to put large amounts of produce on sale at the last minute to avoid spoilage. Recent redistricting has made the county the only majority Navajo county in the state of Utah.

“More than 80 percent of the land in the county is controlled by the federal government. The original boundaries of the [Bears Ears National Monument] lie entirely within San Juan’s borders, and prior to modification, the monument constituted approximately 27 percent of the total land area within the county,” reads a brief jointly filed by groups opposed to the larger size of the monument envisioned by the monument.

That brief was jointly filed in late February by the Utah Farm Bureau Federation and the American Farm Bureau Federation, the state of Utah and San Juan County in Utah in support of President Donald Trump’s December 2017 decision to downsize the size the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and the Bears Ears National Monument.

While the issue remains tied up in litigation, no federal court has ever overturned an executive designation of a national monument as the president is empowered to do under the terms of the 1906 Antiquities Act.

“I am worried that outsiders will see this vote as a victory for expanding the monument,” says Tom, “but, we in the local community will continue to oppose this [expansion]…and protect our rights.”

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