The Battle for Bears Ears: Government’s Role in Conservation

Under the leadership of President Trump’s administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has increasingly scaled back conservation regulations. This has included reducing drilling requirements, allowing oil, mineral, and gas leasing opportunities on protected land, and reversing habitat protections for endangered species. However, few of these changes resulted in such a public outcry as President Trump’s announcement of plans to dramatically reduce the size of two of Utah’s national monuments. The biggest reduction would be applied to Bears Ears National Monument.


The Atlantic previously reported that Republican state leaders had been working on a bill that would protect some of the Bears Ears land, while also leaving areas open to mining industries. However, after three years House Republicans were unable to get the support needed to pass the legislation. During that time, the Bears Ears site was repeatedly looted and vandalized by “pot hunters”- people looking to sell Native American artifacts on the private market. While state lawmakers conceded that protections needed to be put in place, their inability to pass a bill resulted in President Obama using the Antiquities Act to protect the land.

President Barack Obama established the Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016, an effort that was advocated for by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which is made up of five Native American tribes that have present and historical ties to the land. Soon after the monument was created, Utah state officials began lobbying the Trump administration to revoke or reduce the monument. Utah Republicans claimed the monument designation would “stymie growth by closing the area to new commercial and energy development.” In April 2017, Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 monuments across the United States that had been formed under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to protect federal lands and water, particularly ones containing objects of historic or scientific significance. The most dramatic change proposed in Zinke’s subsequent monument review suggested a cut of 85 percent to Bears Ears National Monument, reducing it to two areas totaling less than 202,000 acres, which officially took effect February 2, 2018.


Native American tribes were dismayed by this announcement. Their concern was protecting the more than 100,000 ancestral Puebloan sites and millions of Native American artifacts located within the monument’s grounds. Many wilderness and environmental groups also expressed worry that this action left the public lands open to potential future extraction industries, such as oil and gas leasing or coal and mineral mining. The Washington Post reported that a uranium firm urged Trump administration officials to reduce the Bears Ears monument, as did the firm Energy Fuels Resources. The legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Steve Bloch, stated, “[Trump wants to] turn the key to these lands over to extractive industries and local interests who really want to see them destroyed.” 

Zinke has disputed these claims, telling reporters, “This is not about energy. There is no mine within Bears Ears.” President Trump’s stated reason for the cuts has been to deregulate and undo the previous administration’s federal overreach, in order to “...give that power back to the states and people where it belongs.” President Trump has continued to argue that conservation of public lands should be left instead to the states and individuals. In his December 4 speech, President Trump stated that he had “come to Utah to take a very historic action: to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens.”

However, local environmental groups and Bears Ears advocates argue that this is not in fact what Utah residents want (a January 2016 poll found 58 percent of Westerners oppose turning public lands over to state governments), and that state officials and local lawmakers are instead acting on the lobbying interests of the fossil fuel industries that would profit from privatization and deregulation of public lands. According to The Washington Post, the Red Canyon region of Bears Ears contains extensive uranium deposits, in addition to spectacular Triassic Period fossils, which would no longer be protected under the new monument status. The Post has also noted that over 500 uranium mines have been left on or near Navajo lands - including Superfund sites - the majority of which have not been cleaned up, resulting in the contamination of drinking-water sources.

The five tribes that advocated for Bears Ears – Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian— as well as twenty other wilderness and environmental groups, have filed lawsuits claiming the 1906 Antiquities Act does not give President Trump the authority to undo or reduce federally protected lands, as in the case of Bears Ears, but rather only to create new ones.

Utah locals generally agree that visitation to Bears Ears National Monument has become a problem, but differ in opinion on the subject of responsibility. Is it really a concern for the federal government?


The care of public lands should be the government’s responsibility for a number of compelling reasons, one of them being the tragedy of the commons.

In 1833 William Forster Lloyd coined an economic theory called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” This theory states that in a shared-resource system, individuals will work independently according to their own interests rather than the interests of the collective, resulting in the depletion or destruction of the shared resource. This was observed by Lloyd in the English public pastures, known as commons. Rather than self-imposing limits on flock sizes to prevent overgrazing, herders would instead maximize their short-term profit at the cost of completely depleting the commons. Therein lies the tragedy - through maximizing their flocks in the short run, they prohibited themselves and others from sharing in the resources of the commons in the long run. Their business goals made them myopic, and ultimately led to their community’s demise.

Whether state or federal, it is the government’s responsibility to create and enforce environmentally conscientious laws to ensure a sustainable future.

Today, the scope of the commons has reached a global scale. Due to the widespread and cumulative effects of individual actions that demand fossil fuels or contribute to air and water pollution, "tragedies" can range from melting polar ice caps, widespread air, land, and water pollution, and the extinction of entire species and destruction of their habitats.

The theory suggests that individuals will not self-regulate because of the short-term costs sustainable practices incur, therefore requiring oversight. As New York Times energy and environmental policy reporter Coral Davenport explained on The Daily, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created out of this requirement for oversight, specifically in this case the federal government’s oversight over states. Davenport explains,

The reason the EPA was created in 1970 is that during the 50s and 60s we saw an increase in pollution as the states kind of competed against each other to have the most lax and loose environmental regulations. The problem is pollution doesn't obey state boundaries. The idea was a Republican president created this agency because letting the states work it out for themselves wasn't working for the country.

Climate change, like pollution, cannot be constrained by boundaries. Our commons is the entire country and world. If we take history and human nature to be effective predictors, we can expect that individuals, even state-level political leaders, will not choose to regulate themselves to the degree necessary to protect and sustain the commons. Without regulations, unsustainable industry practices could intensify the flooding, extreme weather, and droughtsassociated with climate change, and could irreversibly pollute the air, land, and water for future generations.


The Center for Public Justice holds that local, state, and federal governments each have a responsibility in environmental conservation. As stated in CPJ's Guideline on Environment, “Government’s responsibility is to ensure that justice is done to the environment as a condition of all economic, technological, and scientific development . . . Local, state, and national governments all bear responsibility to uphold just laws to protect the environment.”

We have witnessed the benefits that can come from both state and federal governments taking steps towards conservation. California’s state government took the lead in 2014, passing legislation banning retailers from distributing single-use plastic bags in an effort to reduce pollution. In the case of Bears Ears, it was the federal government that put protections in place. Whether state or federal, it is the government’s responsibility to create and enforce environmentally conscientious laws to ensure a sustainable future. Due to the large scope of threats to the global environment, the U.S. also needs to cooperate with governments around the world to address global environmental issues, especially as many developing countries will be most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.

As Christian citizens, we have a responsibility to demonstrate care for all of creation by supporting environmentally conscious public policies at the federal, state, and local level. Creation was imbued with inherent value when it was called “good” by God, and this value persists outside of utilitarian purposes. Sustainable laws even have a Biblical precedent in Leviticus, where God commands Israel to let the land rest for a “Sabbath year” every seven years. At the time, the law was so important that it came with an explicit warning: disobedience on the part of the Israelites would result in exile from the land that God had given them. Today, the consequences of our disobedience to honor and steward the land will result in a tragedy of the global commons.

The creation of Bears Ears National Monument represented a positive step towards environmental conservation. Reducing the monument, however, may perpetuate an injustice. As Christians, it is our responsibility to promote stewardship models that seek to enable flourishing for future generations.

-Lauren Berg is a freelance writer and journalist in New York's scenic Hudson Valley.