On the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation last month that shrunk the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument by roughly 85 percent and divvied the monument into two smaller, disconnected units called Indian Creek and Shash Jaa. Similarly, he gutted Utah’s 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase National Monument by roughly 50 percent.
On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee took up a bill sponsored by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) that would legislatively establish the two smaller monuments in the Bears Ears region and prohibit new mining and drilling operations on the original 1.3 million acres. The proposal would also provide additional funding resources for them and create a pair of management councils, one for each of the new monuments, made up of state, local and tribal representatives.
A similar bill introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) in December would codify Trump’s cut to Grand Staircase-Escalante and establish a portion of what remains as Utah’s sixth national park.
The two Utah monuments have been at the center of a fiery debate over the size and scope of sites protected under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
Curtis said during Tuesday’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands that his proposal would protect the antiquities found at Bears Ears, maintain multiple uses of federal land, and empower Utah tribes and local leaders.
“The bill we are discussing today will protect lands in southeastern Utah, in my district, and it will do it the right way,” he said.
But the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — a group of five Native American tribes that petitioned for Bears Ears to be given monument status and is now suing the Trump administration over its recent decision — views the bill as the latest GOP-led attack on the monument and tribal sovereignty.
Shaun Chapoose, a member of both the Bears Ears coalition and the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, said Tuesday that no sovereign tribe was consulted about the legislation. And he swung back at the idea that it establishes “the first tribally co-managed national monument,” noting that the bill gives Trump the authority to appoint all council members, including those from area tribes.
“The council is a return to the 1800s, when the United States would divide tribes and pursue its own objectives by cherry-picking tribal members it wanted to negotiate with,” he said. “It is up to sovereign tribal governments, not the United States, to select our own representatives.”
Much like Trump’s proclamation, Curtis’ bill would trample years of tribal collaboration that resulted in the area receiving monument status, Chapoose added. And its passage, he argued, would essentially “shut the door” on the legal challenges tribes and several conservation groups have brought to block the rollbacks.
In their lawsuit, the tribes argue that Trump does not have the legal authority to shrink the monument.
Also on Tuesday’s panel were three opponents of the Obama-era monument: Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R); Suzette Morris, a member of the Ute Mountain Tribe; and Matthew Anderson, of the conservative think tank Sutherland Institute.
Morris said local Native Americans have been “silenced by special interest groups funded by Hollywood actors” and by tribes that don’t live near Bears Ears.
“There is no one who cares for the land more than we do — the local residents and native people of San Juan County,” she said. “Unfortunately, the Obama monument was done to us, not with us.”
While Bears Ears critics argue the previous administration ignored locals when it designated the monument, supporters have viewed the Trump administration’s review as strikingly one-sided — the results, perhaps, predetermined. Zinke seemingly spent more time listening to Bears Ears opponents and ignored overwhelming public support for keeping Bears Ears and other monuments intact. In his final report to Trump, Zinke said the overwhelming support for maintaining current monuments was the result of “a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.”
At a news conference ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, congressional Democrats and Native American leaders blasted the administration and Congress for silencing the voices of elected tribal representatives.
“We worked hard through all types of administrations to make this happen, to finally have the voice of the Indians lifted up to the level that it was,” said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation. “And now to be destroyed, to be torn down, to be relegated. ... To me that’s a shame. That’s shameful.”
The subcommittee recessed Tuesday’s hearing without a vote and is expected to reconvene for additional testimony on Curtis’ bill at a later date.