01/10/2022

Bears Ears: Looking Forward

By Laura Snider

Celebration, heartbreak, then redemption—and it’s not over yet. Access Fund applauds the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument and prepares for the work yet to come.

The sun rises over Bears Ears, with the iconic Six Shooters and Bridger Jacks in the background. Ancestral lands of Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain, Hopi and Zuni. Photo by Brittany Hamilton.

Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter was just taking his first sips of vacation coffee when the email popped up.

He was recuperating from a weekend spent launching Access Fund’s new Climber Stewards program in Indian Creek as part of an effort to take care of the area’s awe-inspiring but extremely fragile landscape. The Creek’s splitters, which remained largely within Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah even after President Trump ordered the boundaries to be drastically reduced in 2017, are a siren song for crack climbers from around the world, but heavy use has created heavy impacts.

But back to the email. It was an invitation from the White House to attend a ceremony for the signing of a proclamation by President Biden to fully restore Bears Ears National Monument—the next afternoon.

“It was crazy. As soon as I get it, I’m thinking: I don’t have a suit. I don’t have an airplane reservation. I don’t have a place to stay,” says Winter, who was at a cabin in Maine far from his Colorado home (and his closet).

One of Indian Creek's iconic splitter cracks. Photo by Andrew Burr.

Still, you don’t turn down an invitation to the White House if you can help it. And after an alpine start the next day—Winter left that Maine cabin at 2:30 in the morning to catch a 6 a.m. flight out of Bangor—and a stop at Nordstrom Rack, he made it to the ceremony on Oct. 8.

The renewed protection of the climbing areas in the restored monument is a tremendous victory for the climbing community.

Winter’s trip to the White House is much more than a great story for him to tell (though it’s surely that); it’s a tremendous victory for the climbing community. Access Fund getting an invitation to a proclamation signing by the president of the United States recognizes that the organization has been a critical partner in the fight for Bears Ears. It marks years of sustained and committed effort by the organization to protect one of the West’s most dazzling and special places. The invitation extended to Winter is an acknowledgment that climbers, inspired by the places they enjoy, have become powerful advocates for public lands.

The renewed protection of the climbing areas in the restored monument, including Lockhart Basin, Harts Draw, Arch Canyon, and Valley of the Gods along with Indian Creek, is a sweet success for the organization, but it doesn’t mark the end of all that work—not from a policy perspective, not from a partnership perspective, and not from a stewardship perspective.

It’s a sweet success, but it’s not the end of the work. “The most important thing that we have to continue to do is to take care of this incredible place,” Winter says. “That work is never over.”

“The most important thing that we have to continue to do is to take care of this incredible place,” Winter says. “That’s the number-one priority and it will remain the number-one priority indefinitely. That work is never over.”

A commitment not taken lightly

Access Fund’s work to protect Bears Ears stretches back years—before President Trump cut the monument by 85% in 2017, before President Obama established the monument in 2016, and even before even the proposal made by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to protect the region as a national monument in 2015.

Originally, Access Fund focused its efforts to preserve the stunning landscape and climbing areas in southeastern Utah on legislative protection and congressional action. In particular, the organization was initially hopeful that it could effectively advocate for climbing in the region through a massive public lands bill proposed by Utah Congressman Rob Bishop.

With two competing proposals on the table, Access Fund officially threw its support behind the national monument proposed by the Tribes.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe had come together in the summer of 2015, forming the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to advocate for the area’s protection. Bears Ears contains more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites that are considered sacred to many Tribes. In October of that year, the coalition asked President Obama to protect 1.9 million acres of ancestral lands as Bears Ears. It was the first time that Tribes have ever petitioned a president to declare a national monument.

Just a small part of the beautiful sweeping landscapes, an incredible natural resource, that were at risk. Photo by James Q. Martin.

With two competing proposals on the table, Access Fund took stock. Neither proposal guaranteed protection for climbing, but the legislative fix seemed increasingly less likely to be balanced and successful. In 2016, Access Fund officially threw its support behind the national monument, recognizing when it did so that the commitment would be for more than just protecting climbing. Support of Bears Ears as a monument also meant fostering and deepening connections with the Tribes who had proposed it and an openness to explore where the protection of cultural resources and climbing can coexist—and where it can’t.

Support of Bears Ears as a monument also meant fostering and deepening connections with the Tribes who had proposed it and an openness to explore where the protection of cultural resources and climbing can coexist—and where it can’t.

“When we made the decision to endorse the monument, we did not take it lightly,” says Erik Murdock, Access Fund vice president of policy and government affairs. “Once we made the decision, we were not turning back. And in that initial commitment to endorse the monument, we were also committing to staying with the Tribes.”

Access Fund began meeting with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in late 2015, and in October of 2016, the coalition sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell expressing their support for climbing access in the proposed monument. When President Obama ultimately established Bears Ears National Monument in the last weeks of his presidency, the text of the proclamation rewarded Access Fund’s hard work.

The risk of a national monument for the climbing community is that the management plan created well after the monument is designated may restrict climbing access—or even ban climbing outright. To manage that risk, Access Fund advocated hard for climbing to be specifically acknowledged in the proclamation language itself, sending a clear message to those who would subsequently write the management plan that climbing activities should be protected moving forward.

The resulting proclamation not only mentioned climbing, but it mentioned it first among recreational pursuits—the importance of this explicit reference for protecting climbing access in the long term cannot be overstated.

Obama’s proclamation not only mentioned climbing, but it mentioned it first among recreational pursuits, noting that Bears Ears “provides world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, including rock climbing, hunting, hiking, backpacking, canyoneering, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and horseback riding.” The importance of this explicit reference for protecting climbing access in the long term cannot be overstated.

Climbers celebrated their victory, but it wasn’t long before Access Fund’s commitment to Bears Ears, and to the Tribes, was tested. A year later, President Trump slashed the size of the monument by nearly 85% with his own proclamation. The new, emaciated boundaries formed two much smaller monuments—but the iconic cliffs of Indian Creek remained largely protected. About 40% of climbing areas located within the monument boundaries lost their protection, including Valley of the Gods, Harts Draw, and Lockhart Basin. Those areas are classic, no doubt, but much of the climbing could be classified as more adventurous, perhaps more epic-prone, and certainly less popular than the climbing at Indian Creek.

The newly reduced monument also opened up swaths of land to mineral exploration and energy development, including land abutting Indian Creek. Still, Access Fund could have plausibly declared that climbers had mostly gotten what they wanted, declared it a win, and bowed out of the fight. Instead, they chose the opposite path, joining a lawsuit that argued it was beyond President Trump’s authority to dismantle the monument.

“The fact that, as an organization, we stood up and confronted the decision to gut the national monument even though Indian Creek was still mostly protected was an important moment to demonstrate the role we play as advocates for protecting the entire landscape,” Winter says. “It’s bigger than climbing. It’s bigger than just the Creek. This is about following through on our commitment to public lands and to supporting the Tribes.”

Climbing in Indian Creek. Photo by James Q. Martin.

Walking the talk

In the four years since the monument was down-sized, Access Fund has continued to pursue legal action, while at the same time engaging with the federal planning process to develop a management plan for what was left of Bears Ears. Perhaps most importantly, Access Fund has been working to make sure that climbers are the good stewards of the land they promised they would be.

In addition to engaging with the federal planning process, Access Fund is committed to working to make sure that climbers are the good stewards of the land they promised they would be.

“We really want to walk the talk,” says Jason Keith, a Moab local and senior policy advisor to Access Fund who has been working on Bears Ears for decades. “We can’t just say why Bears Ears is important to us. We have to demonstrate the things we are doing to protect the place and to educate climbers.”

Lauren and Johanna, the first official Access Fund Climber Stewards, at their basecamp for climber education in Indian Creek. Photo by Brittany Hamilton.

The most recent culmination of that effort is the new Climber Stewards program that Access Fund launched in Indian Creek this fall. The program puts two climbing advocates onsite seasonally to educate climbers on how to care for the landscape, including how to protect both cultural and natural resources.

“The Creek is incredibly fragile,” Winter says. “The soils are fragile, the cultural resources are threatened, and the natural resources are very sensitive. There’s a lot to talk about and a lot that, as climbers, we need to know.”

The most recent culmination of that effort is the new Climber Stewards program—two climbing advocates onsite seasonally to educate climbers on how to care for the landscape, including how to protect both cultural and natural resources.

Local land managers, who have been dealing with an increase in climbers and other visitors, welcomed the help.

“I’m thrilled with the program and the potential for this partnership to really show visitors that we are present and care about both the recreational opportunities and the resources on public lands,” said Amber Denton Johnson, the Monticello field manager for the Bureau of Land Management, in a blog post after the program was launched. “The Access Fund has continually shown its commitment and we look forward to working with them on this and other efforts to take care of this important place within Bears Ears National Monument.”

Presiden Biden signs the proclamation that restores protection for the threaatened portion of Bears Ears. Photo by Chris Winter.

As the work of stewarding the Bears Ears landscape continued, the administration in Washington changed, heralding a probable change for the monument as well. On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the U.S. Department of the Interior to review the downsizing of the monument and prepare a report. The action sent the message that President Biden would consider restoring the monument, but it was still an open question whether a proclamation signed by Biden would recognize climbing the same way Obama’s proclamation had or at all.

While Access Fund waited for possible good news from the Biden administration, they didn’t let up on its advocacy efforts. Along with other monument supporters, Access Fund continued to push for landscape-scale protections for the Bears Ears region to prevent further damage, and the policy team spent hours behind the scenes working with their contacts in Washington, D.C., to ensure that Biden’s team was aware of the important role that climbers continued to play as advocates for permanent protection and stewards of the land.

When the proclamation was finally issued in October, it was better than Access Fund dared hope for. It not only listed climbing first among outdoor recreation opportunities, as in the Obama proclamation, but it returned to climbing a second time in the text, farther down, where it specifically acknowledged the “unparalleled rock climbing available at places like the canyons in Indian Creek.”

“In listing climbing twice, the Biden administration is recognizing that the climbing community is a committed defender of the monument,” Murdock says. “It’s a call to action for the climbing community to keep up the pressure to protect the monument.”

A future that's still uncertain

The restoration of the monument is a relief for those who have spent years fighting for the designation, but its future is still uncertain. An unanswered question still looms over Bears Ears, and really all national monuments: Does a president have the authority to drastically reduce a national monument or rescind its status? Access Fund and its co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the Trump administration believe the answer is no.

“It can’t just be a ping-pong game back and forth,” Keith says. “That’s why we’re keeping the legal process moving even though the monument has been restored. We want to settle that question and not just have protections go back and forth with each administration.”

It’s also likely that new lawsuits over Bears Ears will be filed in the near future. Immediately after Biden signed the proclamation restoring the monument, Utah’s governor warned that the state would take legal action. Access Fund would consider becoming an intervenor in any suit that threatens Bears Ears.

While these legal battles are ongoing, Access Fund will be working once again to ensure that the management plan, which will now be redone for the entire landscape, appropriately allows for climbing access.

Regardless of the final outcome—of the lawsuit, of the management plan, and, ultimately, of the monument’s boundaries—the long journey to protect Bears Ears will shape the way Access Fund thinks about advocating for public lands in the future, especially when it comes to the intersection of climbing and cultural resources.

The long journey to protect Bears Ears will shape the way Access Fund thinks about advocating for public lands in the future, especially when it comes to the intersection of climbing and cultural resources.

“I think that moving forward in managing natural spaces, Access Fund honors that Tribes are not only ancestrally linked to the lands that we all move across, but because of this, Tribes possess traditional knowledge that informs efforts to protect land,” says Aaron Mike, Access Fund’s Native Lands coordinator. “To Tribes, ideas of conservation, sustainability, giving back to land, harvesting land, and moving across land are not separate ideas, they are all housed within our culture because the land is our ancestor.”

The effort to forge a relationship built on trust and respect with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has provided an opportunity to think deeply about how and when climbing is an appropriate activity on sacred lands.

“We don’t have a perfect model for engaging with all Tribes. These are sovereign nations with different perspectives,” Murdock says. “But this relationship has taught us that sometimes climbing and sacred lands can coexist, and sometimes you might find that climbing is not a good fit. Not every rock is appropriate for climbing. You have to put in the time to develop these relationships to understand.”

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