Barbed Wire and Redrock at Bears Ears National Monument

David Gessner

By David Gessner

I am sitting near the top of the eastern ear, or rather the eastern earlobe, of Bears Ears, the redock buttes that give our most controversial national monument its name. From up here I can look back on my starting point, the meadow far below and two miles north where a big white tent marks the social center for the reunion of five Native American tribes during the fourth annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering. Hundreds of Indigenous people, environmental organizers, and members of the media like me make up the first meeting of this sort since President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced, last December, that they were going to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent.

Although this July celebration is taking place legally on public land—land that is still, despite the reduction of a million acres around it, a national monument—the event hasn't exactly been greeted with open arms by the local white ranchers. In fact, as one young Navajo man put it earlier, it feels a little like we are under siege.

"You look like an environmentalist. Get back in your truck!" This was the greeting one of my fellow celebrants got from one area resident when he stopped to check how deep his back tire had sunk in the muck. Other cars had been tailgated as they made the drive to the celebration. Someone moved the signs for the event so that many of the attendees—and the porta-potties—ended up in the wrong place. The ribbon that marked the pull-off for the road to the gathering was stolen. The Native American organizers responded by placing volunteers on the roads at each turn to make sure guests weren't being misled. Not long ago a private plane buzzed low over our campsite.

"You can tell how special a place is by how many people try to keep you away from it," Navajo elder Jonah Yellowman told me soon after I arrived. I saw what he meant during my hike up here. After lunch these matching buttes looked like an open invitation, and since we were on monument land, I assumed I could walk directly toward them. But barbed-wire fences and grazing cows cut off most of the access, siphoning me to the single point where I could open a gate, scramble up a gully to the public road, and finally get to the base of the eastern butte. Then I climbed to the spot where I sit now. But even then the fence followed me. In a strange marriage of redrock and barbed wire, of public and private, the fence continues right up to where the rock turns vertical, a place no cow could climb.

It feels odd to be fenced in on land that even Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke admit is still a national monument. Public lands are said to belong to all of us, but hiking here, I have experienced the anxiety of the intruder. Looking out at hundreds of miles of land and a half-full moon through an opening in a fence, I am in a fought-over spot in this fought-over landscape in our fought-over country. Maybe this place embodies our world right now. All the battles between red and blue, future and past, are being fought right here, at this point where redrock meets barbed wire and where Native peoples celebrate while white ranchers resentfully prowl the outskirts.

On the hike back, I think of a statistic I recently read: Over a third of the land in the contiguous United States is pasture land, with a quarter of that being land leased by the government, and that almost all of that land serves the cow. I am very careful to reattach the wire loop that secures the gate that leads back to the meadow. Just last week saw the beginning of the trial of environmental activist Rose Chilcoat and her husband, Mark Franklin, in what some of us are choosing to call Gate-gate. Chilcoat was a former director of the environmental group the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and she and her husband are accused of closing a gate on a rancher's property that denied his cows access to a watering hole. This is just the sort of battle that makes San Juan County seem both uniquely quirky and a microcosm for the rest of the country. Here the wars never stop raging between environmentalists and those who resent federal intrusion, and between Native people and locals.

But who are the real locals? Over 50 percent of the residents of San Juan County are Indigenous people and, if the recent primary election is any indicator, two out of the three San Juan County commissioner seats could go to Navajos. Meanwhile "local" Zane Odell, one of the most vociferous opponents of Bears Ears, is actually a Colorado resident. As for the land I am now walking through, it was once the childhood romping grounds of the great Navajo chief Manuelito. He used Bears Ears in the 1860s to hide out from the U.S. Army but then gave himself up to join his people and care for the children and elderly during the Long Walk, the forced eviction and march of Navajos to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. And the Navajos are not alone in seeing this land as a homeland. The Ute traditional territory encompasses Bears Ears, and the Ancestral Puebloan people, including the Hopis and Zunis, don't have to look hard to see clear evidence that this was once their home. That evidence still inhabits the landscape in the form of the plentiful ancient dwellings and artifacts.

"Chief Manuelito wanted peace, but he was ready to fight," Kenneth Maryboy, a Navajo member who is the current Democratic nominee for one of the three county commissioner seats, is now telling a few dozen of us who are gathered under the huge tent. "Manuelito said, 'There is a day when my enemy is going to kill me. But I'm not going to go quietly. Trees and rocks will be ripped up around me. I will take many with me before I go.'"

Perhaps Maryboy is in a fighting mood, having just won the primary for a commissioner seat over Rebecca Benally, who stood next to Trump when he announced the Bears Ears reduction in Salt Lake City last February.

Maryboy's words are inspiring, but they are one of the few aggressive notes during the weekend gathering. The theme of this year's celebration is "Bears Ears Is Healing" and that seems to be happening. A couple hundred of us are camping here, and it's the most social camping I've ever done. Each morning a color guard made up of veterans raises the U.S. flag. We then greet the sunset near the Bear Totem Pole that was carved and brought here as a gift of goodwill and support from the Lummi Nation of Washington State. Then everyone goes in search of coffee in the kitchen tent. All three days, the weather is perfect, and violet morning light plays off of Bears Ears, with its rich, almost edible, red-orange colors shining out from below the green of ponderosa and piñon pines. Mountain bluebirds and cliff swallows shoot from tree to tree in the meadow below the ears.

William Greyeyes, the board chairman of the Utah Diné Bikéyah and one of the original leaders in the struggle to establish Bears Ears, tells me that the lack of local hospitality is nothing new.

"This has happened in past years too," he says. "We just ignored them and re-established our path and kept going forward. That's the only way to do it. These are public lands, federal public lands. It's open to everybody. And they are welcome to put forward a proposal to the United States government. Just as we did."

And so the weekend continues peacefully, including prayer, medicinal plant walks, programs for kids, the dedication of the bear totem, a 5K run, and more mutton than I have ever eaten in my life. By the end of the second day, the anger from the locals has died down and the mood of the gathering is buoyant. Speakers remind us of what was gained, what still is, and what might be again. Of possibilities, not loss.

On Saturday night, the final night of the gathering, I decide to pack it in early after a delicious dinner of bison and beans. Too tired for any more interviews, I stumble back to my tent. But then, lying there, I hear the music. And then a voice over the microphone. The voice belongs to Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, the former councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Ute on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Lopez-Whiteskunk was the first person to tell me the Bears Ears story, back in January, and soon I am climbing out of my sleeping bag and heading back to the big white tent. Lopez-Whiteskunk, dressed in traditional Ute clothing, is dancing to music played by her father and other family members. Her granddaughters, also in traditional dress, sit on the stage and whisper to each other. I join along with everyone else in the final dance, a great snaking circle that turns inward on itself and tightens until we are one great, knotted ball. The dance ends in laughter and applause.

After the dancing, Lopez-Whiteskunk talks to the crowd. Her theme is how to deal with Trump's assault on Bears Ears, and the aggressive opposition the tribes face.

"This is not new for us," she says calmly. "We are used to this. We will adapt."

She reminds us of what has already been accomplished.

"We did it. Yes, they are trying to take it away. But we did it. Remember that."

I like her calm. It soothes. But I also remember Kenneth Maryboy's sterner message.

Taken together, they sound something like this:

We talk, we plan, we teach, we learn, we celebrate, we dance. We try to heal.
But, if necessary, we fight. Like Manuelito, we won't go quietly.
We will fight, and trees and rocks will be ripped up around us . . .

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Environmental Investigation Agency

By Genevieve Belmaker

Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

Read More Show Less
Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.

"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."


By Manuella Libardi

Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.

Read More Show Less

Hope may be on the horizon for the world's depleted coral reefs thanks to scientists who successfully reproduced endangered corals in a laboratory setting for the first time, according to Reuters.

Read More Show Less

Last week we received positive news on the border wall's imminent construction in an Arizona wildlife refuge. The Trump administration delayed construction of the wall through about 60 miles of federal wildlife preserves.

Read More Show Less
PhotoAlto / Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Drinking water treated with fluoride during pregnancy may lead to lower IQs in children, a controversial new study has found.

Read More Show Less
National Institude of Allergy and Infectious Disease

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Thursday of a drug-resistant strain of salmonella newport linked to the overuse of antibiotics in cattle farming.

Read More Show Less
A Greenpeace rally calls for a presidential campaign climate debate on June 12 in Washington, DC. Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted down a resolution calling for an official, party-sanctioned debate on the climate crisis, ABC News reported Thursday.

Read More Show Less