Charles Wilkinson
Charles Wilkinson (University of Colorado / Courtesy photo)

When President Barack Obama officially designated a large swath of land in southeastern Utah to be the Bears Ears National Monument last week, Charles Wilkinson's phone and email inbox began blowing up with messages of congratulations as he sat at his desk in his Boulder home.

Wilkinson, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado Law School, worked for 18 months with leaders from five Native American tribes and other groups to secure the presidential proclamation, which occurred just weeks before the end of Obama's final term.

"We did not know it was going to happen," Wilkinson said of the Dec. 28 proclamation. "I mean, he leaves office on Jan. 20 and so he had to do the signing before then or it wasn't going to happen, and so it was pins and needles along the way, but we were confident. We knew that people in the administration just resoundingly respected the tribal people involved and their reasons for the monument and their long history with the land. They're just part of it."


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With the Bears Ears National Monument designation on Dec. 28, Obama protected 1.35 million acres of public lands in southeastern Utah surrounding Cedar Mesa, a plateau containing "abundant rock art, archeological sites and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes," according to a White House statement. The monument gets its name from a pair of buttes that rise above Cedar Mesa.

On the same day, he also created the Gold Butte National Monument in southern Nevada.

Wilkinson got involved in June 2015 during a meeting of five Native American tribes: the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe and the Zuni Tribe. Representatives from those five tribes decided to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to pursue a national monument designation for 1.9 million acres.

The group asked Wilkinson to serve as its special adviser and offer his expertise for the complex legal landscape ahead of them. Wilkinson, who started his career in 1971 with the Native American Rights Fund and has written extensively about legal aspects of the American West, jumped at the chance to be involved.

"When I learned that native people were thinking about a monument called Bears Ears, my ears really perked up because my boys and I had done a lot of backpacking in that country and I've always thought of it as the real center of the southwest," Wilkinson said. "Cedar Mesa and those incredible canyons, the ancient Puebloan villages and rock art that is still there, it sets you back on your heels. It's a whole new experience intellectually, emotionally, historically, everything."

In addition to his writing and research on federal public lands and American Indian law, Wilkinson also worked on a team convened by President Bill Clinton to help create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

He offered his services pro bono, but had help with his travel expenses from the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental advocacy group. He also had help from five or six CU law students, though work on the national monument effort became like a full-time job. Meanwhile, he kept up his teaching and research duties at CU.

Wilkinson, tribal leaders and other allies spent hours in southeast Utah and Washington, D.C., discussing their proposal, negotiating with federal agencies and making the case for the national monument designation.

Though the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition advocated for protecting 1.9 million acres, the Obama administration settled on 1.35 million.

Still, the designation was a win in the eyes of tribal leaders and their allies.

Perhaps more importantly, the proclamation created the Bears Ears Commission, which will include one elected member from each of the five tribes. Those representatives will partner with federal agencies on decisions regarding management of the national monument land.

"Although we didn't get what we requested, we did achieve something in the proclamation — one without the other was going to make it pointless," said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, co-chair of the coalition and a former tribal council member for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. "The collaborative management and the ability to work together with the federal agencies was huge. It needed to be part of this."

The Bears Ears National Monument has not been without controversy. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the designation and called it an overreach by the federal government. Herbert and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes have vowed to challenge the designation.

Wilkinson, who plans to remain involved with the monument, said he believes the federal Antiquities Act is clear about the president's power to designate national monuments.

Lopez-Whiteskunk said she hoped for a period of healing in the days to come and said she was looking forward to tribal leaders working hand in hand with federal agencies to decide on a way forward for the monument.

"We have always looked upon the land as being one of our teachers because it's where we learn how to co-exist with one another, with plant life, with water, with Mother Nature," she said.

Sarah Kuta: 303-473-1106, kutas@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/sarahkuta