Department of the Interior Agrees to Joint Control of Bear Ears with 5 Native American Nations


Five tribes with historical ties to Bears Ears National Monument will co-manage the park with the federal government in a new partnership announced this month.

A signing ceremony on June 18 celebrated a key land management agreement between the US Department of the Interior (DOI) and tribal authorities. It brings together the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the US Forest Service (USFS) and the five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission.

The event took place along Utah Route 261 against the backdrop of a new sign featuring the insignia of the five tribes. The agreement includes the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Weeminuche (Ute Mountain Ute), Ute Indians of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Zuni Pueblo.

The signed document of cooperation “formally recognizes [the parties’] a solid working relationship.

“We are asked to apply our traditional knowledge to natural and man-made ecological challenges, drought, erosion, visitation, etc. said Carleton Bowekaty, co-chair of the Bears Ears Commission and lieutenant governor of Zuni Pueblo.

Five tribes will co-manage Bears Ears; (photo/BLM)

The story

The agreement stands in stark contrast to the federal government’s destructive history with Native Americans. Many of the country’s national parks include areas sacred to tribes – and were often their homelands. Yellowstone became the country’s first national park after the government forcibly evicted its inhabitants in the late 1800s.

In the case of Bears Ears in southeastern Utah, Native Americans had lived on its land for at least 13,000 years.

The park has only been around since it was created by President Barack Obama in 2016. Yet it has seen a bitter political battle against subsequent administrations. The park was named for high mounds resembling a bear’s head, and the park’s initial proclamation acknowledged its importance to native tribes.

Just a year later, President Donald Trump took away 85% of the park’s land, or 1.1 million acres. Soon a group of tribes President Trump sued to reverse the decision. In 2021, President Joe Biden restored the park to its original limits.

A new movement and joint management

bear ears national monument
Valley of the Gods, Utah, in Bears Ears National Monument; (photo/Paul Brady Photography)

Today, the movement to share control of national parks with Native Americans has gained momentum. The Atlantic ran a cover story in 2021 titled “Return national parks to the tribes.” Under Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland became the first Native American serve as Cabinet Secretary and pledged to improve government relations with the tribes.

The Bears Ears Joint Management Agreement represents an important milestone. The five tribes will submit a land management plan for the park in the coming weeks. The government will then incorporate these recommendations into its own plan.

To support this process, BLM and USFS will provide resources to each of the five countries.

“This kind of true co-management will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said.

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