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Breaking Down Bears Ears: Understanding American Land Ethics

Examining the controversy of Bear Ears National Monument and land ethics.

On December 4th, President Trump announced massive changes to two national monuments in the state of Utah. The news was met with both sighs of relief and cries of outrage, and depending on what lens you’re looking through, both reactions are understandable.

This was a major move in both policy and precedent, but perhaps most intriguing is the rift in the American psyche the announcement has exposed. Let’s break it down.

Outrage: In a country depleting its natural resources like there is no tomorrow, many of those angered by the president’s decision hold tightly to the words of a nineteenth-century pencil-maker: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Eager to prioritize conservation over development, the designation of these lands as protected monuments was a major victory that is difficult to relinquish.

The 1964 Wilderness Act states, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Through this looking glass, the president has opened the earth and its community of life to unhindered trammeling.

Relief: Many who fall into this camp believe that land should belong to people, not governments. Perhaps unknowingly guided by the framework of allodial rights (an ideology championed by Thomas Jefferson, that land should be “held in absolute dominion without obligation to a superior”), this lens reveals a federal government that used some fancy legislative footwork to “steal” American land.

From this viewpoint, the president is giving that land back to its rightful owners, the American people. Utah can turn that land into a monument or a water park, but that’s the point. It’s their choice, not Washington’s.

From this viewpoint, the president is giving that land back to its rightful owners, the American people. Utah can turn that land into a monument or a water park, but that’s the point. It’s their choice, not Washington’s.

The stark dualities are concerning to say the least. Either we protect the land that physically and spiritually sustains us from ourselves, effectively admitting that humanity does not have a rightful place in the community of life we hope to preserve on earth. Or, in the words of our president, we annul “harmful and unnecessary restrictions on hunting, ranching, and responsible economic development.” Which, if history tells us anything, means it is more likely that our grandchildren will visit Bears Ears Uranium Mine than Bears Ears National Monument.

As always, there is a path between the divides. It is not comfortable, or well traveled. It has received almost no airtime or column ink, because it questions the very dichotomies which divide, and so organize us. On this road, humanity is found within the circle of life, and sustainable development is a spiritual conversation rather than an economic legislation.

President Trump told Utahans, “Your timeless bond with the outdoors, should not be replaced with the whims of regulators thousands and thousands of miles away. They don’t know your land, and truly, they don’t care for your land like you do.”

The words are flattering but based upon an untrue assumption. The population of Utah is over 90% white, and as Standing Bear has been paraphrased, “the reason for a white culture’s alienation from their adopted land is that they are not truly of it; they have no roots to anchor them, for their stay has been too short.”

The population of Utah is over 90% white, and as Standing Bear has been paraphrased, “the reason for a white culture’s alienation from their adopted land is that they are not truly of it; they have no roots to anchor them, for their stay has been too short.”

The true issue at stake in Utah is not only land. It is also relationship. It is the capacity of a people to, in the words of N. Scott Momaday, develop a “moral comprehension of earth and air.”

A recent news headline recognized “Bears Ears is Sacred to Native Tribes.” The title might also read, “Bears Ears is Sacred, Only to Native Tribes.”

Until we, as an American people, turn to the wisdom and guidance of our Native communities, to teach us how and why we must recover the sacred, it won’t matter whether we designate land as wilderness, protect it as a monument, or plan for its development. It will remain a possession.

The road forward is a red road.

3 comments on “Breaking Down Bears Ears: Understanding American Land Ethics

  1. I am impressed that the author understands that land doesn’t have to be owned by us, to be appreciated. I hope we will all learn to respect and care for the land that belongs to all of us and needs therefore to be cared for by all of us without the need for legislation. It is called doing the right thing.

    • Brandi Douglas

      Thank you for sharing in your respect of the land and it’s importance to us all. Keep reading! We appreciate it!

  2. Pingback: Protecting Native Lands – Bears Ears

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