President Obama has created two new national monuments in southeastern Utah and southern Nevada totaling 1.64 million acres, despite intense opposition from some American Indians living in the area.
Obama created the Bears Ears and Gold Butte national monuments using his powers under the Antiquities Act, adding to the 265 million acres of lands the president has already put under stricter federal regulation.
The White House set aside 1.47 million acres of land to create the controversial Bears Ears monument, which has been opposed by some local Navajo tribal members despite being supported by tribal officials.
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday.
But Obama’s is larger than one lawmakers proposed earlier this year and encompasses more than 9,700 more acres of private and state lands. The Interior Department, however, says the Obama designation is similar to that of Congress.
“These lands are sacred to many Native American tribes today who use them for ceremonies, collecting medicinal and edible plants, and gathering materials for crafting baskets and footwear,” reads an Interior Department statement.
Though in total, Obama’s designation is 80,000 acres larger than what House lawmakers proposed in the so-called “Public Lands Initiative” — that law was actually meant to block Obama from ever creating a Bears Ears monument.
Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have used the Antiquities Act to create national monuments for more than a century, but Obama has used the law to put more lands under stricter control than any other president.
Republicans say President-Elect Trump can undo these designations, which make it harder for people living in or around them to live their daily lives. National monuments don’t explicitly ban activities, but they can make it harder to farm, drill, mine or hunt and fish on federal lands.
Despite White House assurances traditional activities wouldn’t be limited, locals are still worried their way of life will be forever changed.
Some Navajo living in the region fear they won’t be able to collect firewood or gather herbs from Bears Ears once it’s been made into a monument.
The Interior Department said such activities would be protected, but locals look at the nearby Arches National Monument where collecting wood isn’t allowed.
The Interior Department also notes future drilling and mining activities will be banned in the region, which puts into jeopardy the fate of Energy Fuels Resources, the largest private employer in the area. The company has uranium mining claims in the region.
Obama created a Bears Ears Commission that’s composed of tribal members to advise the government on managing the monument. But as locals point out, the Interior Department has the ultimate say on what happens.
Navajo Nation leadership supports the monument, but two subgroups who live closest to the monument, the Aneth Chapter and the Blue Mountain Diné, oppose it. The Blue Mountain Diné are not an officially recognized Navajo chapter.
Most Navajo in San Juan County support the monument, while others remain neutral on the issue. Only one of the 110 Navajo chapters oppose the monument along with the Blue Mountain Diné. Many white locals have also come out against the monument over concerns it could hurt the local economy.
“As both Navajo and American, I am proud our President listened to a sovereign appeal and acted to preserve our sacred land for future generations,” Russell Begaye, Navajo Nation president, wrote in an oped on the Bears Ears designation.
Update: This post has been updated for clarity
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