Davis Filfred has future generations of the Navajo Native American tribe on his mind.
A member of the Navajo Nation Council, Filfred fears for the fate of nearly 547,000 hectares (1.35 million acres) in the US state of Utah, filled with ceremonial sites, dwellings, rock art and cultural resources that date back thousands of years.
“We’re trying to protect and preserve for generations to come, and if they destroy it, we’re just going to [have to] say, ‘That place used to be Bears Ears,'” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
“Over 100,000 significant, scientific, historical [artifacts] are still out there,” Filfred said.
Until recently, Bears Ears was protected under US federal legislation, namely, the US Antiquities Act, which allows a US president to designate government-owned and controlled lands as national monuments provided they contain “objects of historic or scientific interest”.
“We have rooms. We have tools. We have artifacts … This land was our aboriginal land,” Filfred explained.
“We have ties to this land in terms of stories and prayers, and we have medicines, we have herbs, that are on this land.”
But earlier this month, US President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the size of the Bears Ears monument, shrinking the site by about 85 percent, down to approximately 82,000 hectares (201,876 acres).
A second national monument, Grand Staircase Escalante, was also reduced by 39 percent to just over 403,600 hectares (one million acres).
The administration wants to open up the areas for hunting, fishing, cattle grazing and other commercial activities, including potential oil drilling.
But five Native American tribes – the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Zuni Tribe – have filed a lawsuit in the US District Court against Trump and a handful of other administration officials.
The president does not have the authority to abolish the monument designation for Bears Ears, the lawsuit argues, and therefore Trump has “exceeded the limited authority delegated to his office and violated the Antiquities Act and the separation of powers established in the Constitution”.
“We’re going to litigate. We’re going to stand. We’re going to hold President Trump accountable for this and we’re going to take it to court. We’re going to fight it,” said Filfred, who also sits on the Bears Ears Commission, a tribal committee that made recommendations on how to administer the monument.
‘Strict government control’
Outdoor clothing company Patagonia has also filed a lawsuit against the president’s decision, calling it “an illegal move.
“This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history,” the company said on its website.
As of Thursday, four separate lawsuits had been filed against Trump’s proclamation on the national monuments, the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper in Salt Lake City reported.
Speaking in Utah on Monday, however, Trump accused previous US administrations of overreaching in their national monument decisions.
Those administrations, Trump said, engaged in “abuses of the Antiquities Act [that] give enormous power to faraway bureaucrats at the expense of the people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home”.
“We’ve seen many rural families stopped from enjoying their outdoor activities. And the fact they’ve done it all their lives made no difference to the bureaucrats in Washington,” Trump said.
Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act is meant to protect sacred lands and artifacts, among other things. It restricts hunting, fishing and other recreational activities in the designated areas.
Following a years-long, concerted effort from Native tribes, Barack Obama designated Bears Ears a monument in December of last year, just before the end of his second term as president.
Former President Bill Clinton made Grand Staircase Escalante a monument in 1996.
“Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes,” Obama wrote in a proclamation at the time.
But Trump has argued his predecessor did not designate the “smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection” as stipulated under the Antiquities Act.
“Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control,” Trump said.
Other monuments under review
In April, Trump signed an executive order calling on Ryan Zinke, the US interior secretary, to review all national monument designations over 100,000 acres (40,400 hectares) that were made since 1996.
In addition to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, Zinke is pushing the administration to change the monument designations in at least 10 other monuments “to allow for more grazing, timber, fishing, road access and other uses”, Reuters news agency reported.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, on the border of Oregon and California, and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada could be reduced in size, Zinke recommended, according to a statement on the website of the department of the interior.
On Twitter, Zinke said Trump was “giving a voice back to the people who live and work in Utah
“Our land is for the enjoyment and benefit of the people and not special interest groups,” Zinke wrote.
— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) December 4, 2017
But according to an August report by the Center for Biological Diversity, energy companies have lobbied to lease more than 42,500 hectares (105,000 acres) “within or near public lands that now constitute Bears Ears” for oil and gas development.
‘Can never be replaced’
According to Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Tribal Business Committee from the Uncompahgre band in Utah, the Bears Ears area is “a flashpoint” in the relationship between Native Americans and the federal government.
Granting the area national monument status helped ease past tensions, Chapoose told Al Jazeera, which have flared over the years when sacred burial grounds, religious altars and other artifacts have been disturbed.
It was “a great move within the nation to finally have reconciliation”, he said.
“But with this president and this administration, they’re trying to take us back into that era of the 1800s and a more paternalistic approach.”
Chapoose, who is also a Bears Ears Commission member and part of the lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision, added that protecting Bears Ears is in the interests of everyone, not just Native Americans.
“If it’s destroyed, it can never be replaced,” he said.
“Treasures like these, you could go across the world – the pyramids in Giza, the Pantheon – once those types of resources get destroyed, you lose a very important part of the story of the world.
“We do have responsibilities to protect that.”