(CNN) — In an unprecedented move, federal officials signed an agreement to collectively manage the more than 1.3 million acres of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument with five Native American tribes.
The Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, along with representatives from the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe formalized the arrangement on Saturday, just before unveiling a new sign for the monument that includes the tribal nations’ insignia.
Carleton Bowekaty, lieutenant governor of the Pueblo of Zuni tribe, said having the opportunity to manage the tribes’ ancestral homes is the best avenue for restorative justice.
“Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future,” said Bowekaty, who co-chairs the Bears Ears Commission, the panel of tribal representatives tasked with working with federal officials.
Bears Ears, a sprawling southern Utah region rich in red rock canyons, cliff dwellings and numerous archaeological sites, was the focal point of protests, political battles and a broken promise in recent years.
In 2016, former President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears as a national monument and directed officials to engage tribal government officers in the development of a management plan for the monument. Before a year had passed, former President Donald Trump decided to cut its boundaries by roughly 85%.
It was until last year that President Joe Biden directed officials to restore the monument’s boundaries to 1.36 million acres.
Each tribe — the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe — has ancestral ties to Bears Ears that date back to time immemorial. Many Native people often visit to run in prayer, connect with their ancestors’ spirits and collect medicinal herbs.
Due to their ties to the land, tribal members began looking into a way to protect the land and formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2015. The group has advocated for the monument and worked to develop a land management plan.
“This is really, to me, a victory because of the vision and the leadership and the tenacity of the tribes involved,” Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said about the agreement.
Gonzales-Rogers said the result of the tribes’ work should be seen as a model of collective partnership and co-management for the rest of Indian country and all other communities of color.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Tuesday the agreement represents “what true Tribal co-management should look like: sharing in the decisions and management plan with federal investments to supplement efforts. This is one step in how we honor our nation-to-nation relationships with Tribes,” she said.
“The people of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni have lived in Bears Ears for centuries. I am so proud we have the opportunity to co-manage this monument together,” Haaland tweeted.
Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Bureau of Land Management, said the agreement formalized a unique partnership that will serve as a model in the future.
“This is an important step as we move forward together to ensure that Tribal expertise and traditional perspectives remain at the forefront of our joint decision-making for the Bears Ears National Monument. This type of true co-management will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future,” Stone-Manning said in a statement.
Gonzales-Rogers told CNN the coalition will be submitting its final land management plan in the coming weeks and the tribes expect it to “serve as a compass” of their priorities as the Bureau of Land Management works on a new plan for the monument.
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