Foundations Back Tribal Involvement at Bears Ears, Amid a Heated Land Battle

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President Obama continued to shore up his environmental legacy during his waning days in office, using executive powers to provide major wins for environmentalists, albeit enraging some Republicans. 

But outcry from state politicians didn’t stop the president from designating the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah late December, a remarkable environmental and cultural achievement that was notably led by a coalition of Native American tribes. It also didn’t stop a group of foundations from following it up with a $1.5 million fund in support of historic tribal involvement in its future management. 

The monument is being celebrated by Native American communities, environmentalists, even outdoor recreation outfitters, and had strong public support. Its designation under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which does not require Congressional approval, will protect 1.35 million acres of ecologically, archaeologically, and culturally important canyon lands in Southern Utah. Such land protection is also a potential boon to the region’s recreation economy, and industry leaders recently criticized state officials for fighting federal land protections. 

But fight they did. It’s not that Utah Republicans didn’t want to see Bears Ears protected; that’s been broadly supported. But the legislation they crafted to do so would have not only protected land, it would have opened up other swaths to development and extraction, and limited the federal government’s ability to establish new monuments. The bill failed to draw broad support, and the feds stepped in. (The Atlantic has a pretty thorough rundown of the saga.) Now opponents are threatening everything from lawsuits to challenging the Antiquities Act itself, claiming federal overreach. 

The contention has been a flashpoint among land battles in the West, where the federal government owns nearly half of all land, and some state leaders are loath to see that expand. It’s also impossible to separate the issue from conflicts between county and state officials and tribal leaders, who say their inputs and proposal for protection went unheard.

Keep in mind, this is the place where a county commissioner was jailed for 10 days last year after leading an ATV ride over a Native American archaeological site to protest federal protections. Conservation funders are no strangers to land disputes, but that’s a pretty intense arena for foundations to enter. 

So the fact that tribes played such a large role in the establishment of the monument, and are now in a place to influence how it’s managed, make the win all the more remarkable. and despite the discord, seems to be at least in part what drew the suite of conservation funders into the mix. 

The push for the monument was led by five tribal nations and had support from another 30 tribal governments, and the lands they successfully sought to protect are historically sacred, but also important to surrounding Native communities still today. For the first time in national monument history, Bears Ears will involve tribal representation in its management. As one scholar pointed out, this is unique from past federal land protections that have treated Native people with a paternalistic or a historic lens, and instead includes contemporary people in land management. 

The Hewlett, Wyss, Packard, Wilburforce, Leonardo DiCarprio foundations, and the Grand Canyon Trust established the new $1.5 million fund in support of collaborative management of the area, including multiple local communities, but specifically emphasizing “robust tribal involvement.” Among other things, the fund will go to support tribal engagement, and to stem looting and vandalism of sacred sites.

The foundations involved include some of the biggest land conservation funders operating in the West, so it’s not a big surprise that they would line up to support the monument. We’ve also seen plenty of examples of the Obama administration’s environmental and other initiatives drawing supplementary backing from foundations. 

But the significance that this was a Native-led campaign shouldn’t be ignored, especially in the context of the movement led by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Ongoing resistance there and at other sites around the country has placed Native American leadership firmly at the center of the current environmental discussion, and this monument can be seen as a component of that. 

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There are conservation funders that support indigenous leadership, but historically funding for Native American issues is sorely lacking. Less than 1 percent of American philanthropy—a 2011 report put the number at 0.3 percent—focuses on Native American communities, which experience extreme poverty, education and health issues. 

So the impressive thing about this grant and the new monument is that, rather than just carving up a chunk of land, both take into account historic and contemporary cultural issues of Native people.

This is clearly just one step, and there’s a long way to go. But the monument and the fund does affirm that land management and Western conservation funders must listen to and support tribal leadership.