The Battle Over Bears Ears

Why the people who live in San Juan County, Utah, feel like they’ve been caught in the middle of a monumental land grab.

Up in the hills of Allen Canyon, around ten miles northwest of Blanding, in San Juan County, Utah, there’s a stretch of land owned by Tom Morris, a retired employment counselor and Ute Mountain Ute tribal member. On a cool Saturday evening in late June, Tom hikes through the muddy shrubs with his wife, Loretta, their adult daughter, Suzette, and Suzette’s six daughters, who play hide-and-seek along a sandstone bluff overlooking miles of canyon and wilderness. The twin Bears Ears buttes, covered in pinyon pines and junipers, fill their westward view. In December 2016, Tom’s land and a million-plus surrounding acres were incorporated into the boundaries of newly designated Bears Ears National Monument by President Obama, in a proclamation that would be rescinded almost exactly one year later by President Trump, who ordered an 85 percent reduction of the monument, placing Morris’s land outside the monument once more.

Allen Canyon has been in the Morris family since the 19th century. The Obama administration included it in the Bears Ears National Monument, and the Trump administration removed it.

Tom’s 240-square-mile plot has been in his family for nearly a century, and this flip-flop was part of a legacy of larger, more powerful forces laying claim to the area’s riches. The land was the heirloom of Tom’s great-grandmother, who received it from the federal government shortly after Tom’s great-grandfather, a Paiute man named Posey, led a defensive attack against Blanding’s white settler population in 1923. The attack came after whites rounded up dozens of Ute and Paiute families in a makeshift concentration camp, and contemplated killing them all. Afterward, about 50 Utes and Paiutes who stood their ground in Allen Canyon were awarded private lots there by Congress.

The Morris family resides in the nearby town of White Mesa, a government-created settlement where nearly 300 Ute Mountain Ute tribal members live. The town is 12 miles south of Blanding, where White Mesa’s children go to school and hang out at the local movie theater, and where adults travel to buy groceries and other staples. Blanding and White Mesa are connected by Highway 191, the main road coursing through San Juan County’s small towns. With a population of little more than 4,000 people, Blanding is the county’s most populous city. Others town are much smaller: Monticello, population 1,972, is the county seat; La Sal is a former mining town with 395 people. San Juan County itself is home to only about 16,700 people, even though it comprises 5.2 million acres of Utah’s southeastern corner. Nearly all of it is owned by either the federal government or the Navajo Nation.

White Mesa, where around 300 Ute Mountain Ute tribal members live.
Monticello, population 1,972.
Blanding, population 3,375.

Towering red rock and expanses of sand in the south stretch up 191 toward Moab in the north, in neighboring Grand County, where tourists from around the world come to visit Arches National Park. In the western part of the county is the San Juan River, where people have lived near and among the wilderness for millennia. More recently, the area, particularly the land near near Allen Canyon, has become a valuable place to drill for oil.

These days, the Morris family mostly drives up to their property to barbecue, hunt, and generally celebrate life. Walking toward the bluff, one of Suzette’s daughters spots an ancient arrowhead among the pebbles and rocks. In the Morris family, adults teach children that when you see a piece of pottery, a tool on the ground, or any mark of earlier civilizations, you’re supposed to cover it up. Suzette, who works as an assistant at the White Mesa Ute Senior Citizens Center and is currently running for a seat on the county’s education board, pushes a small pile of dirt onto the arrowhead with her foot. Nearby tire tracks etched into the red earth by a trespasser’s all-terrain vehicle signal it may not stay hidden.


Artifacts like this blanket this area, which has been at the heart of a controversy over the Bears Ears National Monument for the past two years. It’s a fight that the Morris family perceives as a conspiracy to take their land, though the reality is more complicated: with or without a monument, outsiders want a piece of what many in San Juan County have come to understand as theirs.

Map by Lo Bénichou; data: US Census Bureau, US Interior Department, Mapbox, OpenStreetmap.

The politics of Bears Ears in San Juan County are wrapped up in local tensions that stretch back more than a century. They reflect fault lines established early in the county’s history, when ranchers and cattlemen settled the area. Personal histories here can intersect in discomforting ways, but they tell a story far more complicated than two sides of a monument debate.

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It can take hours to travel within the county. Sitting at the northwest corner of the Four Corners region, some towns can’t be reached without first crossing into Arizona. A quarter of the county’s land, all of it concentrated in its southern flank, is owned by the Navajo Nation, whose jurisdiction also spills into Arizona and, to a lesser extent, New Mexico. Three of the county’s main towns off 191—Bluff to the south, Blanding in the middle, and county seat Monticello to the north—are so rural they don’t have a single stop light, but traffic here has steadily increased as tourism to surrounding attractions has grown.

Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion—are scattered from the southwest corner of the state up through the east, connected by about 400 miles of highway. In the federal parlance of designated public lands, a national park is reserved for public consumption because of its scenic, recreational, or educational value, while a national monument signifies something deeper: historical, cultural, and scientific significance meriting preservation by federal forces.

Under the Trump administration, Bears Ears National Monument has been reduced by 85 percent and split into two sections, the Indian Creek and Shash Jáa Unit boundaries.

According to the Obama administration, members of Congress, former Secretaries of the Interior and State, tribal leaders, and local conservationists have all proposed a monument for Bears Ears at various times over the past 80 years: “The area’s human history is as vibrant and diverse as the ruggedly beautiful landscape. From the earliest occupation, native peoples left traces of their presence.” The Obama administration’s December 2016 proclamation laid out opportunities for paleontological, archeological, and geological study, “from sharp pinnacles to broad mesas, labyrinthine canyons to solitary hoodoos, and verdant hanging gardens to bare stone arches and natural bridges.”

Most notably, “the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.” Making the area a monument, the administration concluded, was clearly in the best interest of the Native people who lived there.

After Trump’s 2017 reversal, the New York Times ran a story with virtual-reality video under the title, “Explore Bears Ears Through Indigenous Voices,” featuring people who considered the monument’s shrinkage a threat to their cultural heritage. It was part of a genre that implicitly connected the monument to Native people’s wishes: “Native Americans Are Pissed Off at Trump’s Move to Slash Public Land,” read one such headline from Vice; the Guardian reported that “Trump faced [a] Native American alliance over Bears Ears” after shrinking the monument.

“I think the reason why we were against the monument designation was because we were already taught to be respectful to the land, and we knew how to take care of it.”

—Suzette Morris, with her family

But for Suzette Morris, whose land in Allen Canyon fell under the Obama-era designation, the land and its relics don’t need a monument designation in order to be preserved. The people who’ve lived, played, and worshipped here know best how to protect them. “I think the reason why we were against the monument designation was because we were already taught to be respectful to the land, and we knew how to take care of it,” she says. So when the Trump administration reversed the decision, reducing the monument by more than 1 million acres, Suzette’s father, Tom, felt that his family had beat another attempt by the feds to seize the family’s land. (“I’m one of the ones who stopped it, and I’m proud of it,” he says, “because this piece of land right here would have been gone, and we would have had nothing.”) It was a form of resistance, he explains, in the tradition of his great-grandfather Posey, who had resisted being moved to a reservation in the early 20th century.

It’s possible Tom is mistaken that his land had been seized, considering Obama’s presidential proclamation said “traditional cultural properties” of Native Americans would have been left alone. But his family’s suspicion is rooted in a very real history of displacement. He has the land because his ancestors resisted, and he sees himself acting in this same tradition. Ceding land to the feds didn’t feel like preservation; it felt like yet another example of what’s been happening for centuries.

Monument Valley, in the Navajo Nation, is on the southern border of San Juan County. More than 350,000 people visit it each year.

The 2009 campaign to designate Bears Ears as a national monument blossomed among Navajo Nation leadership concentrated in the southern part of the county, miles away from White Mesa, Blanding, and Monticello, according to a timeline published by Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit group based in Salt Lake City that formed around the campaign.

By 2014, leadership from tribal groups located outside Utah, including the Hopi Tribe, in Arizona, and All Pueblo Council of Governors, in New Mexico, sent letters in support of a monument designation to Utah’s congressional delegation; other Utah tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute and the Uintah and Ouray, sent members to join an intertribal coalition formed in 2015 to talk directly with the feds, after years of fruitless discussion with San Juan County.

They weren’t alone. An article from the Desert News reported around that time that the Conservation Lands Foundation, which focuses on federal land protections, glommed onto the Bears Ears campaign after it gained traction with the Obama administration. The partnership with conservation groups infused the campaign with cash, resources, and access to top Interior Department officials, including Sally Jewell, who was then the Secretary of the Interior. (Utah Diné Bikéyah lists several private companies and foundations as donors, including Patagonia, the Conservation Alliance, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, prompting allegations of astroturfing—or cultivating the false appearance of a grassroots campaign—from some monument opposers.)

With or without a monument, outsiders want a piece of what many in San Juan County have come to understand as theirs.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk served for a time as a cochair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, and as a council member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in Towoac, Colorado. That town is home to about 2,000 Ute people, and the tribe’s leadership is headquartered there; they also represent the Utes in White Mesa, including the Morrises, located about 80 miles away. Lopez-Whiteskunk first got involved with the Bears Ears campaign in July 2015, when tribal representatives from Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona met in Towaoc to strategize. “I had no idea this project was going to rope me into it,” Lopez-Whiteskunk says. For a few months, Whiteskunk and others involved in the campaign attempted to work with Utah’s Congressional delegation, including Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both Republicans. But communications eventually broke down. The coalition saw a more receptive liberal ally in the White House, who seemed more open to their demands.

“We reached the point where we, as sovereign tribes, [didn’t] necessarily need to go through the state of Utah,” Lopez-Whiteskunk says. “With time winding down for the Obama administration, we needed to really figure out another strategy to ensure the preservation, conservation, and continued access to the protected area.”

A roadside stall selling Navajo goods in Monument Valley.

The monument issue appears to have had an impact on local politics in San Juan County. In January 2015, Rebecca Benally, a Navajo woman opposed to the monument, was elected to a seat on the San Juan County Commission, sitting alongside two other anti-monument commissioners, Bruce Adams and Phil Lyman. She replaced Kenneth Maryboy, one of the earliest and most proactive monument advocates, and she’s claimed the majority of Native Americans in the county oppose the monument. Her seat represents the county’s then-majority Navajo district, which was created in 1984 after a federal judge found its voting system disenfranchised Navajo voters.

In 2016, a federal judge ruled those boundaries were also discriminatory because they sequestered the Navajo vote, which typically swings Democratic, to one of three districts. Last December, Judge Robert Shelby approved new boundaries so that two district seats are now in play in this year’s November election. A Navajo man named Willie Grayeyes was running for a seat in a newly redrawn district, only to be disqualified by the county this summer after it challenged his residency claims. Grayeyes, who is suing to get back on the ballot, is the chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah’s board.

Both Kenneth Maryboy and his brother Mark, a former San Juan County commissioner, are also board members at Utah Diné Bikéyah. Mark was a plaintiff in yet another lawsuit, filed in 2016, against San Juan County for disenfranchising Navajo residents by instituting a mail-in voting system and not providing voting assistance in the Navajo language. The parties reached a settlement this February, but not before the county accused the Maryboys of using the lawsuit to reclaim Benally’s seat.

Like the Maryboys and Grayeyes, Lopez-Whiteskunk emphasizes the historic connection that she and other tribes in the Four Corners share with Bears Ears. To her, this means they all have a legitimate claim to it, regardless of the state borders imposed by European settlers. In this sense, she says, they’re not outsiders. A monument would honor their collective heritage.

“I think it’s real important that we not only preserve the land, which we have a strong relationship with, but also preserve the relationships between the different Indigenous people through the events which they celebrate through their dances and stories,” she says.

“Its not changing because we want it to change, its changing because this is happening to us, and we have to adapt to it.”

—Jami Bayles

For the Morris family in White Mesa, claims of ownership from faraway tribes are too abstract to entertain. They’ve taken heat on social media from other Indigenous people for their opposition to the monument. Suzette bore the brunt of it, particularly after she spoke in front of Congress in January in support of legislation to bolster President Trump’s proclamation last December. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council in Towaoc criticized her for claiming to speak on behalf of the tribe, though her testimony shows she never represented herself as such.

In August 2016, Suzette met Jami Bayles, a Blanding resident and vocal opponent of the monument, at a community meeting where people had gathered to organize against it. Like Suzette, Bayles’s ancestors also had a hand in shaping the social character of the area: two sets of her great-grandparents managed the Blanding Ute Dormitory in the 1920s and 1930s as the federal government pushed to assimilate the tribe into white American society.

According to Bayles, her meeting with Suzette Morris came after then-Secretary Jewell held a public hearing that July in nearby Bluff. Unbeknownst to Bayles, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition had already been working with Jewell’s office for months, and by the time of the meeting Bluff was flooded with monument supporters bussed in from around Utah and other states. Hours before the meeting started, at least 100 supporters in matching blue shirts had packed the community center. Bayles wasn’t there, but she says her friends and family who attended were taken aback.

“After that meeting, we realized, Oh my God, this is something that has been in the works with other organizations for a while now, and we’re just now realizing it,” she says. “Those voices sort of drowned out the local ones.”

Bluff, population 258, is where Highway 191 splits and heads north toward Bears Ears.

A month later, Bayles and Morris helped form a group called the Stewards of San Juan County, and were elected president and vice president, respectively. The group soon began receiving support from the conservative Utah think tank the Sutherland Institute, which put them in closer contact with sympathetic state politicians.

Organizing themselves provided a sense of empowerment at a moment when Bayles felt like outside forces were coming in to change everything. They had seen it happen about an hour and a half north in Moab, a former uranium-mill town whose popularity as an outdoor mecca had exploded in recent decades because of its proximity to several national parks.

There’s also the example of the Grand Escalante Staircase, designated a monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996 that some in neighboring Garfield County claim to be responsible for a severe decline in school enrollment and jobs outside of tourism. (A study from Headwaters Economics last year disputed those claims.) Natalie Randall, director of economic development in San Juan County, says tourism rose in the past few years in part due to attention on Bears Ears. Fifteen percent of people are employed in leisure and hospitality, and the county puts a portion of revenue made from a lodger’s tax into tourism promotion. (President Trump also reduced the size of Escalante in December 2017.)

“We don’t wanna become just having to rely on tourism solely for our economy,” says Bayles, who works as a counselor supporting low-income students heading to college. Like Morris, she feels a strong connection to the land; she and her son hunt together in the Abajo Mountains.

“It’s not changing because we want it to change, it’s changing because this is happening to us, and we have to adapt to it,” Bayles says.

“Everywhere you turn, it seems like there's more lies. Is it the government that wants to get rich, or is [it] the Navajo Nation that wants to get rich and pocket everything?”

—Betty Jones

Another constant presence at the Stewards of San Juan County meetings was Betty Jones, a 97-year-old Navajo woman living on a wide, dusty expanse of the county just outside the northern border of the Navajo Nation. People around here know her as Grandma Betty. She stood right behind Trump at the Salt Lake City press conference last December, with the current Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, clasping her shoulders from behind. At the conference, the president signed two proclamations rolling back the Bears Ears and Grand Escalante monuments.

Grandma Betty, a medicine woman who grew up herding sheep and cattle along the San Juan River and between the Bears Ears buttes, says she wanted to be on stage when the document was signed. Like the Morrises, she saw the monument as another false promise from the federal government, which she feared would limit her family’s ability to hunt, gather cedar bark, and collect medicinal herbs. She disputes allegations that she was duped into appearing on stage with Trump.

Moab is a former uranium-mill town whose popularity as an outdoor mecca exploded in recent decades because of its proximity to several national parks.

Grandma Betty’s daughter, Anna Jones, explains that her mother was on stage “more for the people of San Juan County, because they were crying for her. Translating from Navajo into English, Anna continues: “White people came to her, but what they’ve seen over there was she was carrying” the family’s documents confirming the Jones’s claim to their land.

Those papers, Anna says, establish that the family was granted several thousand acres of land after the passage of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which transferred 80 million legally unclaimed acres across the country to the federal government. The land was then split into grazing districts managed by the Department of the Interior. Anna maintains that over the years, various entities, including the state of Utah, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Navajo Nation, all attempted to claim parts of the territory that had been granted to the family nearly a century ago.

A member of the Navajo Nation, Kalvin Adaki, holds a picture of his grandfather.
The Adaki family and other Navajo tribe members cut wood from Bears Ears for the winter.
In Navajo Nation, power and paved roads are a continued problem.

In desperation, Anna says, her father reached out in the 1980s to Mark Maryboy and asked him to advocate for their family in his capacity as county commissioner. Anna says nothing fruitful came of the exchange. When her father died, interested purchasers rushed to their land, forcing the family to argue its claims in federal court. They currently hold a grazing permit for their cattle that live off of Bureau of Land Management land.

The Bears Ears monument felt like another deceit, but Grandma Betty says she also feels taken advantage of by the Utah politicians who told her their opposition had nothing to do with mineral and fossil fuel extraction. In fact, emails obtained by the New York Times showed these were central motives for the monument’s reduction. The lobbying began less than two months after Trump’s inauguration, when Senator Orrin Hatch reached out to Zinke’s office with a map of oil and gas sites within the former Bears Ears monument boundaries.

“Everywhere you turn, it seems like there’s more lies,” Grandma Betty says through Anna. “That’s how we talked about this. Is it the government that wants to get rich, or is [it] the Navajo Nation that wants to get rich and pocket everything?”

A water tank sits in front of old uranium mine in the Navajo Nation.

In March, the BLM auctioned off $1.5 million worth of land parcels, mostly in San Juan County, including some near the former boundaries of the Bears Ears monument, and in other artifact-rich tracts of land. Before the monument’s reduction, Department of the Interior officials also met with representatives from Energy Fuels, the uranium-mining company with multiple dormant mills near Bears Ears, that will benefit from the department’s recent designation of uranium and vanadium as critical minerals.

Two Energy Fuels mines just outside the borders of the former monument, the La Sal complex and the Daneros mine, are set to go back into operation. If they do, hundreds of holes will be punched into the earth in exploration for minerals. Energy Fuels also operates a uranium mill in White Mesa, where it imports radioactive waste from all over the United States and Canada, and turns them into tailings—toxic waste particles containing heavy metals and radium—before storing them there indefinitely.

The tailing impoundments sit just above aquifers supplying White Mesa with tap water, and there’s evidence they’ve already been contaminated. The Morris family doesn’t drink from the taps, which often spew out brownish and smelly water. Instead, Suzette spends about $260 a month on bottled water. Nobody—not the state, the county, or the Ute Mountain Ute tribe—is helping her with the expenses.

“We don't know if it’s good or if it’s not good, so we don’t drink it,” Suzette says.

“I see the monument and the designation of it with the stroke of a mans pen to be nothing more than to be another way for the federal government to steal more of this land.”

—Lawry Redd

The prospect of new drilling and mining is part of a long legacy of toxic industries using this corner of southeastern Utah as a so-called sacrifice zone. People here feel like their livelihoods have always come second to the interests of outsiders who want their land. They all start to look the same after a while, whether they be extractive corporations or well-heeled outdoor enthusiasts demanding pristine and untouched environs.

“I see the monument and the designation of it with the stroke of a man’s pen to be nothing more than a land grab, to be another way for the federal government to steal more of this land,” says Lawry Redd, a fifth-generation rancher and cattleman living just down the road from the La Sal mining complex, which is roughly halfway between Moab and Monticello, off Highway 191.

That’s not to say he’s rooting for the uranium and oil companies either. At heart, he says, he’s an anarchist.

“Even though I don’t agree that we should be pulling the black stuff out of the ground, I don’t believe that the federal government should be coming here telling us what we should do in our own backyard,” Redd says between drags at a Marlboro Red.

Redd is a direct descendant of Mormon settlers who set off to San Juan County in the 1870s from other parts of the state. Every few years, he and his family, including his daughter and ranch hand Justus, drive in a jeep along the Hole in the Rock Trail blazed by his ancestors in the southern part of the county. Cattle herding in this area has never been easy. It’s grown more difficult in recent years.

Lawry Redd herding cows on the summer range.
Justus Redd on her ranch in La Sal.
Bureau of Land Management grazing lands for the Redd cattle herd.

Redd borrows about $350,000 annually to operate his cattle operation, La Sal Livestock, and makes just $25,000 in profit. He owns grazing permits for 265,000 acres owned by the BLM and the Forest Service, which is housed in the Department of Agriculture. He only runs about 1,000 cows on this huge expanse of land, which he says is due to the arid conditions here; the bromegrass, bluegrass, orchardgrass, and fourwing saltbush that the cows munch on is sparse, and they need space to roam.

The originally proposed 1.9-million-acre monument would have gobbled up a huge portion of Redd’s grazing lands. Even though they fell outside of the 1.3-million-acre designation Obama eventually declared, the whole thing was just one more pressure to his cattle company since he took the reigns in 1998. Another is the historic aridification of the region, which has forced the grasses to mature early this year. Redd will have to buy tons of hay to make up the difference. And pressure from groups like the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, and Grand Canyon Trust, whom he worries will take him to court over his grazing permits, have forced him to do more conservation, like developing water springs and maintaining fences in deep wilderness, without any extra help.

People here feel like their livelihoods have always come second to the interests of outsiders who want their land.

All three groups are also part of the Conservation Alliance, which supported the original Bears Ears monument. But the fault lines on the issue are just as much cultural as they are political, and Redd admits that collaborating with the environmental nonprofits led him to challenge his own belief that he had “a right to graze the land no matter what.” They also gave him a way to talk about something normally taboo in rancher circles: climate change. He wants a climate-resilient operation to leave to Justus, and thinks ranchers have to be proactive in repairing their reputations as science deniers.

“I think that now the climate change discussion should be an easy thing to do,” Redd says. “We’re tied to this ground, and if that Four Corners high [temperature] stays over [the] Four Corners area for another month, there’ll be some ranchers that probably, whether they talk about it publicly or not, the climate change is in their minds, it’s playing with their livelihood.”

A service station in La Sal from the 1950s, when uranium mining was common in the area.

It’s clear from talking to Redd that his willingness to deconstruct his own beliefs about his role on these lands have upended a lifetime of comfortable assumptions. Standing outside Justus’s aging wood panel house, he reflects on the Native Americans who were violently displaced by his ancestors. Colonization is literally visible in the foundations of his daughter’s home: broken and reshaped remnants of stone metates, once used by a Navajo family to grind corn, make up the foundation on which the house rests. Settlers retrieved them years ago from nearby Pritchett Canyon, an area now frequented by hikers and ATV motorists.

As with climate change, Redd says, there’s no easy way to talk about past sins, nor are there easy solutions. He feels a reckoning coming.

“I don’t know the answers,” he says, gesturing toward Justus, “but this is what I’m leaving to her.”

Comb Ridge, at the edge of Bears Ears.
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