There's a battle raging over a remote corner of Utah, and though you may never have heard of it, it's a fight that could fundamentally reshape the way the US preserves wild spaces.
The 2 million-acre region known as Bears Ears — named after twin buttes that tower over the landscape — is sacred to many Native American tribes in the Southwest, including the Navajo living in nearby Monument Valley. The tribes, along with some conservationists, want President Obama to designate the land a national monument.
But the coalition is facing opposition from another group of lawmakers, ranchers, and a smaller group of Native Americans that say the rules accompanying a monument would strangle the local economy. It's a loosely affiliated group, but one forged from the same frustration that lead to the Bundy family standoffs in rural Oregon and Nevada, a protest ATV ride in Utah, and dozens of other clashes that stretch back decades. Simply put, many in the West are angry that the federal government controls so much of its land and Bears Ears is ground zero for the fight.
Recent months have seen a flurry of activity from both sides, with demonstrations in Salt Lake City, as well as a string of elected officials visiting the remote region near Four Corners. But now as the conflict enters the 11th hour — President Obama has until the end of his term to actually create the national monument — lawmakers are aiming at something even bolder: an effort to break the back of the system that creates national monuments in the first place.
These officials want to go after the Antiquities Act — a 1906 law giving presidents broad discretion to create national monuments, which have more protections and regulations than other public land. The latest salvo in the offensive happened this month when the US House of Representatives passed a funding bill for the Interior Department that would significantly declaw the act by cutting off funding for new national monuments. The funding prohibition would apply to monuments in numerous counties across eight Western states.
Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, who backed the funding prohibition, said the bill would prevent a national monument at Bears Ears.
"I am committed to continuing to use the power of the purse and my position on the Appropriations Committee to rein in regulatory overreach at the Interior Department," he said in a statement.
The bill is not yet law as it still needs approval from the Senate and the president, who has threatened to veto it. But it nevertheless offers the latest, clearest example of the way Western lawmakers are working to cut down the Antiquities Act, a law they say gives presidents far more power than they should have.
And Stewart isn't fighting this battle alone.
In May, for instance, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop told the Salt Lake Tribune, "I would really be happy if they tried to make it a monument because it would be ammunition to go after the Antiquities Act in the best way possible."
Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources committee and a longtime warrior in the fight for state control of public land, is on the record opposing the national monument. But his "ammunition" comment suggests something larger: that he's itching for a fight that could undermine the Antiquities Act.
Utah state lawmakers have also approved a resolution condemning the "unilateral use of the Antiquities Act." In addition to slamming a potential national monument at Bears Ears, the resolution works as a kind of ideological blueprint for the plan to curtail the use of the act. For example, it calls for the state to receive an exemption to the law; it encourages Congress "to amend the Antiquities Act to prevent presidents from unilaterally designating enormous amounts of land within a sovereign state"; and it argues that the use of the act is fundamentally unfair because it "disparately impacts Western states."
Utah Rep. Keven Stratton, who sponsored the resolution, told BuzzFeed News that people are frustrated with a federal system that is "broken" and that "puts public lands at risk." Echoing his resolution, Stratton said he believes that it's time for the Antiquities Act to be reevaluated, "so that the president isn’t using it for political advantage."
Other lawmakers are also joining the fight against a potential designation, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, who in June visited the area and said "it would be a tragedy if they would go ahead and just ignore all of the people's rights here." A spokesperson for Gov. Gary Herbert told BuzzFeed News he would be "supportive" of changes to the Antiquities Act, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz posted a photo to Instagram on July 4 with the caption "NO to national monument."
Ken Ivory — a member of the Utah House and president of the pro-state organization the American Lands Council — went a step further, arguing that the president does not have the authority to "lock up millions of acres" by decree.
"Our system was designed with an intricate network of checks and balances so you weren’t reliant on one man or one group of people," he said. "This sounds a lot more like the kings going back to England."
Ivory's argument echoes the initial language in Utah's anti-monument resolution that described the president's ability to make land designations as "alleged authority." ("Alleged" was taken out of the final version of the resolution.)
"If we don’t provide politically productive solutions for people, then you’re going to see frustrations continue," Ivory added.
How exactly a challenge to presidential authority and the Antiquities Act will play out remains to be seen.
Opponents of a national monument are also working other angles; this month Bishop and Chaffetz released their Public Lands Initiative, a proposal they've billed as a consensus solution to fights over public land. The initiative would set aside space throughout Utah for conservation, including a 1.4 million-acre Bears Ears National Conservation Area — a move meant to prevent a presidential monument designation.
However, the Bears Ears Coalition criticized the proposal, saying it is "alarmingly unbalanced and falls woefully short." The coalition also criticized Utah lawmakers for excluding it from the initiative drafting process.
"We continue to believe that our monument proposal will establish one of the greatest of all national monuments and parks," the coalition added in a statement.
Whatever happens, it could be a shadow of things to come in Western states, where conservative lawmakers and ranchers are similarly butting heads with Native American groups and conservationists. And according to Stratton, things may not cool off in the immediate future.
"We’re not trying to start a fight here," Stratton added, "but we may end up that way."
It won't, however, be a fight that is easily won.
During a drive to the top of the Bears Ears buttes this spring, Albert Holiday — a member of the coalition — told BuzzFeed News that he's hoping for a presidential decree because the area is filled with ancient Native American dwellings, and because it is still used by his people.
The idea favored by Holiday and other coalition members is to protect the sensitive aspects of the landscape — the ancient sites, the herbs and firewood that people still use — and have native groups co-managing the site that includes scores of ancient ruins, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs. The ruins date back to the 1100 or 1200s.
Despite efforts to weaken the Antiquities Act and alternative conservation proposals, the coalition continues to lobby for a monument. Those efforts will continue and proponents like Holiday remain optimistic that they will prevail.
"All this belonged to the Navajo at one time," Holiday said. "Our people will take care of it. This is the first in the United States where Native Americans are going to do that, where we’ll take care of it ourselves."