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Making Bears Ears whole: The big swap with Utah state lands

Thousands of archaeological sites in Bears Ears National Monument were removed from the monument when President Donald Trump shrunk the monument by 85%. Those sites will be protected when President Barack Obama’s boundaries for the monument are restored. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and President Joe Biden are considering the restoration of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument.

Native American tribes and environmental organizations are waiting for a positive announcement, but when it happens, that’s only the beginning. Another goal will be trading out thousands of acres of Utah state lands to make Bears Ears whole.

Most of us go shopping with cash or credit cards. Imagine looking for land with a grocery cart full of blue squares. That’s the analogy attorney Michael Johnson gave me on behalf of Utah’s State Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA). He may soon work with other staff members to explore an exchange of 120,000 acres of state trust lands within the boundaries of President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. On a color-coded map of Obama’s original 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, there are plenty of blue squares – sections of state trust land in 640-acre parcels.

Utah State Institutional Trust Lands seen as blue squares within Bears Ears National Monument’s original boundary. (Courtesy of Utah State Institutional Trust Lands)

Like a game of dominoes, many pieces need to fall into place. Take the monument itself. Obama used the 1906 Antiquities Act and his executive authority to declare a stunning national monument in San Juan County, Utah, at the request of five Native American tribes. Indigenous people around the world applauded the monument’s creation.

A year later, President Donald Trump shrunk the monument by 85%, resulting in federal lawsuits because nowhere in the Antiquities Act does it say a subsequent president can diminish a previous president’s declaration. Congress can, but not the president.


Like Colorado, Utah has an open records act. In Colorado, it is called CORA, or the Colorado Open Records Act. I like the acronym in Utah, which is GRAMA, or Government Records and Management Act. I filed a GRAMA request with SITLA and its cooperative staff members helped me out. I wanted to know how far Utah had progressed toward a land exchange before Trump pulled the rug out from under it. I received draft contracts, friendly and forthright emails, maps and a poignant letter from then Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

In a Jan. 18, 2017, letter to Utah’s former Gov. Gary Herbert, Jewell described the discussions between SITLA staff members and the Department of the Interior. She defined them as “honest and constructive (and that the dialogue) made significant progress toward developing a conceptual framework and map for a land exchange that would benefit the state’s schoolchildren and enhance protection of cultural and biological treasures.” The maps and draft documents I read prove her point. Jewell wrote: “I have great confidence, however, that these efforts will be carried forward in the next administration and that a common-sense land exchange … will come to fruition.”

It did not.

This map shows the 85% reduction of Bears Ears National Monument. (Courtesy of Friends of Cedar Mesa)

Lobbyists from the energy and uranium industries got to the Trump administration first. The goals of Native Americans were ignored. Bears Ears was shrunk to only 15% of its original size. SITLA land-exchange maps went on the shelf. Lobbyists had their own maps. According to The Washington Post, Energy Fuels, which processes radioactive materials at its White Mesa Mill south of Blanding, Utah, “urged the Trump administration to limit the monument to the smallest size needed … to make it easier to access the radioactive ore.”

The New York Times reported, “Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument.”

But now an exchange may occur. We’re back to square one or at least back to little blue squares. With Biden’s nomination of Haaland as the first Native American secretary of the Interior, and with tribal groups petitioning the new administration, it looks like Bears Ears may achieve the full boundaries it deserves. SITLA staff members are dusting off the work they did a few years back, but exactly how do you swap 120,000 acres of Utah state trust land for income-producing federal land? And how did the map get blue squares in the first place?


As Utah evolved from a territory to a state in 1896, the state’s enabling act stipulated that for every township of about 23,000 acres, four sections of 640 acres each would be set aside as state land. All the rest remained federal land open to federal laws, including homesteading, mining and grazing, which could allow for private ownership. Utah received sections numbered 2, 16, 32 and 36. These are the little blue squares on a landownership map – different from green squares for the U.S. Forest Service, beige for the Bureau of Land Management and white for private property. Johnson says Utah received more state land than most other Western states because “it is an arid state, so the acreage grant got bumped up.”

This rare Navajo yei figure carved on a boulder in Cottonwood Wash is no longer within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, but it will be legally preserved when the original boundaries are reinstated. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Johnson’s office will work on the land swap. Most state inholdings within Bears Ears will become federal land. But who wants to trade and for what? Before the dominoes can fall, an elaborate chess game must take place, including approval by the Utah Legislature and then the U.S. Congress.

SITLA’s mission is clear – create funding for statewide educational institutions, grade schools to universities, from “lands held in trust for beneficiaries.” Johnson will “look for anything that can be used to generate revenue and the more the better” to add to the $2.3 billion now administered by the State Treasurer’s Office.

What is at stake is protecting the vast Bears Ears landscape, which includes Ancestral Puebloan roads, shrines, pueblos, cliff dwellings and, according to Friends of Cedar Mesa, “what may be Utah’s highest concentration of Navajo and Ute archaeology, including rare petroglyph panels.” This is a unique living landscape.

These historic Navajo horse petroglyphs will be protected with the restoration of President Barack Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument boundaries. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition says: “The Bears Ears region is not a series of isolated objects, but the object itself, a connected, living landscape, where the place, not a collection of items, must be protected. You cannot reduce the size without harming the whole.” Archaeological sites in Bears Ears date back thousands of years, or to use a Native phrase, “from time immemorial.”

“The scattered sections within the monument will likely be traded out,” Johnson says, especially those “rich in cultural resources and topographically challenging.” This land exchange is a giant game of Monopoly only instead of buying Park Place and Baltic Avenue, it’s about the state “trading into” federal acreage.

Utah State Institutional Trust Lands cropped 2016 draft exchange map with lands to be exchanged seen as raspberry, or hot pink. (Courtesy of Utah State Institutional Trust Lands)

Johnson says, “There are a lot of moving parts, particularly when you intend to seek an act of Congress.” SITLA is not obligated to exchange for federal lands within San Juan County, though there might be political pressure to do so. “There will always be people who question the lands we select, but we have to move forward,” he says.


The documents I read prove that Utah state administrators can work well with federal officials in the Department of the Interior. But there will be new federal staff members. Land exchanges take time. It is an interesting process that harkens back to the original rules established by the Founding Fathers for territories to become full-fledged states.

I agree with former Secretary of the Interior Jewell who wrote, “I want to extend my thanks to the staff of SITLA for their consummate professionalism, strategic vision and creative thinking.”

Hopefully, full and complete protection of Bears Ears is on its way. Hopefully, we will soon preserve an intact Native landscape to honor the Ancient Ones whose spirits remain in the cliffs and canyons.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.

Utah State Institutional Trust Lands draft exchange map with lands to be exchanged seen as raspberry or hot pink. (Courtesy of Utah State Institutional Trust Lands)
Always on the edge of the Ancestral Puebloan, Navajo and Ute cultural boundaries, Bears Ears is now in the center of a major political debate over the future of the 1906 Antiquities Act and the protection of public lands in the American West. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Hundreds of rock art sites in Johns Canyon were removed from the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument by President Donald Trump’s 2017 proclamation, which should be reversed. Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
For the first time in American history, five Native American tribes asked for the Antiquities Act to be used to protect their sacred sites such as this 800-year-old kiva, which is no longer protected within President Donald Trump’s reduced boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)