Public lands honor the past, provide hope for the future

Now is the time to celebrate America’s public lands and the stories they tell about our nation.

This summer marks the 115th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, which grants U.S. presidents the unique ability to designate culturally, spiritually, historically, scientifically and ecologically important federally managed lands as national monuments.

This includes the Río Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monuments in New Mexico, and the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Bears Ears is one of the most significant cultural landscapes in the country. It includes more than 100,000 sacred cultural sites and areas of spiritual significance. The monument designation was the result of grassroots work by Utah Diné Bikeyah and consultation with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to determine the future of the landscape.

The Trump Administration’s call in 2017 to reduce the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (also located in Utah) was deeply disrespectful and harmful to the tribal nations that call the region home.

President Biden should act quickly to restore and expand protections for both monuments. This is an immediate step that the federal government can take to begin repairing relationships with tribal nations, including the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute, Kaibab Paiute, Paiute Tribe of Utah, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Jemez Pueblo, Acoma Nations and others with ties to these lands.

Restoring these boundaries also provides an opportunity to recognize the significance of America’s national monuments and the community-led processes that result in these designations.

When we think of national monuments, we may think of natural landscapes, perhaps with stunning cliffs, rivers and deserts. But the monuments are complex – they honor cultural, spiritual, historical and ecological values, and can be centered around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. This is certainly the case in New Mexico.

Take, for example, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Río Grande del Norte. Both protect important cultural resources and landscapes. Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is used by Puebloan tribes from Ysleta del Sur and the Piro-Manso-Tiwa for gathering traditional plants, and Río Grande del Norte protects traditional lands of the nearby Taos and Picuris pueblos, as well as the Jicarilla Apache and Ute Tribes.

Looking ahead, it is imperative to tell the full range of our country’s stories in existing and newly protected landscapes. This is one step in the path toward repairing harm, and building a more just and equitable society.

In El Paso, Latino communities have organized for years to designate the Castner Range National Monument. Led by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, the first Latina congresswoman to represent Texas, Latinos are calling to protect 7,000 acres of public lands. Designating the national monument would provide more inclusive places for borderland communities to enjoy the outdoors and recognize Latino advocacy for these protections.

With Secretary Deb Halaand – a member of Laguna Pueblo and America’s first Native cabinet secretary – leading the Department of Interior, we are eager to see restorative strategies that return leadership in land management back to Indigenous peoples.

We call on President Biden to restore the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. We also look forward to the Biden administration acknowledging more of the stories that our communities have to tell us and leading inclusive efforts to protect public lands into the future.

Teresa Ana Martinez, Jessica Loya and Eboni Preston are founding board members of the Next 100 Coalition, which is committed to co-creating a system of public lands that engage, reflect and honor our nation’s entire people. They live in Santa Fe, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.


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