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Opinion: Bears Ear Needs to Keep National Monument Designation

Those who serve appreciate the nation’s public lands

Former President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation in December establishing Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Opponents, including members of Congress,  want to reverse that or greatly reduce its size. (Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management)
Former President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation in December establishing Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Opponents, including members of Congress,  want to reverse that or greatly reduce its size. (Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management)

Today our public lands play an essential role in our nation’s collective identity, reminders of the creed, principles, and freedoms that our Armed Forces protect and defend every day.

For this reason, servicemembers are among the greatest advocates for, and supporters of, our national public lands. We work aggressively to ensure that the stories of our nation’s origins are safeguarded and can continue to be told for future generations. Bears Ears is one such story.

In the next few weeks, the newly confirmed Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke, will travel to Utah and hear from tribes and other interest groups on the Bears Ears monument designation.

It is our collective and firm belief that Bears Ears must maintain its designation as a national monument and rightfully join the ranks of other national treasures like the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Gettysburg that we have long protected and honored.

Bears Ears is one of the most stunning and unique landscapes in the world. Named for two soaring buttes that stand in the center, the spectacular landscape includes impressive red-rock formations, towering mountain peaks, and hidden sandstone canyons.

Sacred lands

For our nation’s Southwest Native tribes, these ancient lands are sacred, as many trace their ancestry back to this historic area. It contains rock carvings, burial grounds, and an estimated tens of thousands of archaeological sites dating back thousands of years.

Today, many Native people still use this public land for food and healing rituals. Unfortunately, in recent years, rampant looting, vandalism, and grave robbing have plagued the region, marring countless sites and Native artifacts. A land this fragile, with significance this great, deserves to be protected.

In addition to permanently protecting Bears Ears, the designation, issued in December, includes a first-of-its-kind tribal commission to provide input on the monument. Comprised of five sovereign tribal nations with strong historical, spiritual and cultural ties to the land, the commission will play a critical role in the management and the protection of the monument.

When crafting the Bears Ears designation, President Obama ensured that important Native cultural traditions — including hunting, collecting herbs, gathering firewood, holding spiritual and holistic ceremonies — could continue. At the same time, he made certain it also gives the general public access to the land for recreational activities like camping, hiking, and exploring.

As retired senior military officers, we place great value in the recreational opportunities public parks, like Bears Ears, afford. For decades, our national public lands have enriched the lives of veterans, active duty members, and civilians alike — encouraging us all to be more active, to connect with one another, and to embrace the outdoors.

For men and women in the armed forces spending time exploring our public lands can help to build physical health, mental resiliency, and a range of leadership skills. Our parks can also be a place of solace, allowing returning veterans to recuperate from an active tour of duty, to heal from the trauma of war, and to renew bonds with loved ones after long deployments.

Despite the fact that this designation encourages recreational access, aligns with plans Utah’s congressional delegation had previously proposed, and makes certain that locals who currently use the land for ranching are able to keep their resource privileges, politicians in Utah have responded with undue rage.

Many are promising to rescind the designation. By pushing this agenda forward, they are failing to recognize the true value of our national monuments and how central they are to the American experience.

The story of America

From Yellowstone and Fort Sumter to Yosemite and Manassas, our parks tell the full story of America. They preserve our past, honoring America’s diverse culture, rich heritage, and entrepreneurial spirit. They provide us with the chance to reflect on some of our most defining moments.

By teaching more Americans about our nation’s journey and the lives of previous generations, our parks help the public enhance their sense of belonging, purpose, and appreciation for our nation and our democracy. If more of our citizenry are able to renew this connection with our country, more will step up to serve and take care of it.

Rescinding the Bears Ears designation goes against the very principles our national parks represent, and it would break our nation’s longstanding commitment to build a more inclusive and complete American story. Moving forward, we encourage all our nation’s leaders to summon the courage and wisdom to stand up to today’s partisan political pressures. We demand that they stand up for tribal sovereignty and the protection of one of our most cherished and sacred lands.

Future generations should have the same opportunity that we have now to enjoy, experience, and benefit from this magnificent place.

Lieutenant General John G. Castellaw, United States Marine Corps (retired), served for more than 36 years in the Marine Corps and flew more than a dozen aircraft. He is currently CEO of Farmspace Systems and operates a family farm in Tennessee.

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