ST. GEORGE – While Utah Republicans lead an effort to cement President Donald Trump’s shrinking of the Bears Ears National Monument and declaring two new, much smaller monuments from the remnants, tribal leaders who advocated for the original monument’s creation see those efforts as putting salt on the wound wrought by Trump’s order.
Legislation by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, would put into law the boundaries of the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments declared in the wake of Trump’s executive order drastically reducing the 1.35 million-acre Bear Ears National Monument by 85 percent. It is also touted as creating the first tribally co-managed national monuments in the nation.
However, tribal leaders and opponents of Curtis’ bill say it was drafted without consulting the tribal governments. They also blast it for not providing adequate protection for a region considered sacred by tribes that maintain ancestral ties to it.
“This bill puts salt on the wound caused by Trump’s order,” Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribal Business Committee, said Tuesday as he testified in a congressional hearing.
He also said the bill undermines relations between sovereign tribes involved and the United States government.
Curtis’ bill was the subject of a subcommittee hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday that featured Chapoose and also Utah Gov. Gary Herbert who supports the bill.
“I recognize there continue to be controversy and debate over these remarkable areas,” Herbert said. “The question is: does there really need to be this controversy? Perhaps I am an idealist, but I hope we can come together and work in good faith, recognizing that we all want these lands to remain public. And we all want to protect their history, archaeology and unique nature.”
Herbert went on to say the management of the two smaller monuments should be a collaborative effort involving the tribes, and that doing that through the legislative process was the best way to go about about it.
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When the Bears Ears National Monument was originally created, part of the declaration included the creation of the Bears Ears Commission, an advisory council composed of tribal representatives who would make recommendations to federal land managers concerning the monument. The commission was supported by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a collective of five tribes that petitioned for the creation of the original monument.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, called the commission created under the Obama designation a “fraud” and a “sham” as federal land managers, such as the Bureau of Land Management, could ultimately ignore any recommendations made.
“They get to advise, but that advice can easily be rejected,” Bishop said. “… However, if you actually go with what Rep. Curtis is proposing, legislatively creating a body that actually does that, the ability to make those management decisions, that will then be carried out by BLM. That actually goes to what the inter-tribal coalition wanted in the first place, but did not get from the Obama proclamation.”
Under the Obama declaration, the tribes are able to pick who their own representatives to the advisory commission. Under Curtis’ bill, any appointees from the tribes would have to be appointed by the president due to the commission’s policymaking authority. Curtis’ iteration of the commission also includes other officials, like members of the San Juan County Commission.
Tribal leaders critical of the legislation say it will allow the president to pick whomever he wants, instead of allowing them the power of self-determination in this regard.
“It is up to the tribes, not the U.S. government, to select our own representatives,” Chapoose said.
While the congressional hearing was underway, a news conference with Native Americans, environmentalists and others opposing the bill was held at the Utah Capitol. There, Virgil Johnson, the head of the Utah Tribal Leaders Council, said the tribes were united against Curtis’ bill, according to a report from The Salt Lake Tribune.
“As in the past, the United States government desires to come into Indian Country and tell Native Americans what is in their best interest,” he said.
While elected officials from the tribal governments involved continued to voice support for the original Bears Ears National Monument, opponents of it have long maintained that Native Americans who live in San Juan County, where the monument is located, did not support the monument. Instead, they argue, their voices were drowned out by outside interests.
“Our voices have been silenced by special-interest groups funded by Hollywood actors, San Francisco boardrooms and by tribes who do not live anywhere near Bears Ears,” said Suzette Morris, a member of the Posy Band of the Ute Tribe and a member of the nonprofit Stewards of San Juan County.
Morris also testified that elected tribal leaders who lived out of state did not speak with local tribe members who lived next to Bears Ears.
Worries of no longer having access to land within the Bears Ears National Monument were also a concern, Morris said, as there is a fear federal land managers will not honor Native American practices of gathering firewood and herbs for medicines found in the territory of the original monument.
Morris took the place of San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation. The commissioner was unable to the make the congressional hearing, yet added her voice to a statement from the commission supporting Curtis’ bill.
“By supporting H.R. 4532, you are listening to a group that has been silenced for too long and finally allowing us a seat at that table,” Benally said in the statement. “We all come from different backgrounds, but we want the same results. We want land that is well managed, protected and accessible to all people.”
Still, Chapoose argued that the bill and those supporting it are dividing the tribes while saying it was violating the relationship between the sovereign, federally-recognized tribes and the United States.
“We’re going to mandate, as in the 1800s, what is best for the tribes, make the decisions at the congressional level, and we (the tribes) will once again suffer the consequences of it,” Chapoose said.
The tribes predate the states, Chapoose said, and their agreements are with the United States through treaties, and not with counties or individual states. As for others claiming they shouldn’t be able to have a say in wanting a national monument simply because they live out of state, he said his people and others were original from that area, yet had been forced to move away in the past.
Currently the tribes and other groups have lawsuits filed against the Trump Administration over the Bear Ears executive order. If the bill goes through, that will “shut the door on the legal process,” Chapoose said.
As for concerns the land and sacred sites within it are no longer protected, Herbert said there are laws in place protecting it as public land overseen by the BLM. Other laws also protect Native American archaeological sites across the region.
Concerning law enforcement coverage of the area, though, Herbert said only two BLM officers patrol the region. Under Curtis’ bill, 10 law enforcement officers each would be dedicated to the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek monuments.
Curtis’ bill would also prohibit mineral extraction within the 1.35 million-acre boundary of the original Bears Ears National Monument.
“This legislation does what most people want to see happen,” Herbert said during a teleconference following the hearing.
No action was taken on Curtis’ bill as further discussion was slated for a future date.
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