Bears Ears Reorganization Bill Draws Local Tribal And State Support
A bill to reorganize the remaining Utah lands formerly known as Bears Ears National Monument into a pair of tribally co-managed monuments while also maintaining protective mineral withdrawals drew local tribal and state support at a congressional hearing Tuesday.
At the House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on federal lands issues the discussion focused on tribal co-management for the Shash Jaa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act The designation, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), said would create national monuments that represent collaboration between “Tribal members, governments and other affected local communities in Utah,” a multiple use management plan, and legislative action.
“Unfortunately, the former Bears Ears proclamation never mentioned tribal management – just an advisory commission,” San Juan County Commissioner and Navajo Native Rebecca Benally told the committee.
Benally, a Democrat, supports H.R. 4532.
“In our community, public lands are our most valuable resource. The land is our inheritance, handed down from generation to generation. We treasure the land. We take care of the land. H.R. 4532 is a step to create the first Tribal managed national monument. The Shash Jaa National Monument incorporates land within the Bears Ears area,” Benally said.
Focusing on the voices closest to the impacted lands, Benally said, would be the best approach.
“The purpose is only worthwhile if it truly serves the people. And no group of people has more to lose or gain, than the local tribes,” she told the committee. “It’s our backyard, it’s in our back door. We’ve done a great job to keep it a pristine area for decades and decades.”
Benally said that relationship was upturned in 2012, when a new, outside interest in the area arose.
“Why the sudden interest? I think you can draw your conclusion. Self-serving for NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and environmental groups fronting and romanticizing Native American way of life,” Benally testified.
Benally’s testimony and the stated opposition to the bill from other tribal members mirrored the split in public opinion reported by Western Wire over the Trump administration’s announcement in December. Local tribes and Utahns generally supported the monument reduction, while activists and tribal leaders from outside the area opposed the December decision.
Other tribal leaders expressed deep concern with the bill, telling the committee that as duly elected representatives of their respective tribes, they were speaking on behalf of all native tribes appearing at the hearing.
Carleton Bowekaty, an elected member of New Mexico’s Zuni Tribal Council and the Zuni Tribe’s appointed representative on the Bears Ears Commission, took issue with tribal members who he said appeared to speak on behalf of other tribes.
“We also note that the tribal witnesses here today are the duly designated representatives for the five tribes, unlike the handful of individuals who have been portrayed as representing one or more of the Coalition tribes,” Bowekaty testified. “Differences of opinion on major issues like this are inevitable, but let’s be honest about our differences and not misrepresent the issues, the positions of affected tribes, or who speaks for those tribes.”
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the committee that the Navajo Nation Council’s objections to the bill included the way it “divides the five tribes by not including members of each nation in the management councils.”
Begaye also said that Benally’s appearance as a San Juan County Commissioner did not mean she was also representing either the Navajo Nation or speaking as a tribal representative.
“She is a county commissioner, not a Navajo Nation official. We appreciate her election to that position but a [Aneth chapter] re-vote really needs to take place,” Begaye said.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition includes the Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Hopi Tribe.
Clark W. Tenakhongva, Vice-Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, based in Arizona, and the Hopi Tribe’s Commissioner for the Bears Ears Commission, said in testimony he and other tribal members were concerned about “multi-use management including increased motorized vehicle use and increased grazing that would put these sensitive places at risk.”
Tony Small, Vice Chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe’s Business Committee, said the Ute Indian Tribe “adamantly opposed” the bill, worrying about preserving and protecting tribal and cultural resources.
A January poll of registered Utah voters conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune showed support for shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Fifty-one percent surveyed said they supported the Bears Ears reduction.
In late 2014, Conservation Land Foundation minutes indicated a coordinated effort to build buy-in with local tribes—“hitching our success to the Navajo”—and discussed what to do if that support faltered “if we separate from them or disagree with them.”
“Without the support of the Navajo Nation, the White House probably would not act; currently we are relying on the success of our Navajo partners. Growing support from other tribes should also be helpful in empowering the White House to act,” according to CLF minutes.
The discussion also included the importance of naming the proposed monument.
“What would the monument be called? The local campaign has agreed to the name ‘Bears Ears’ to move away from a Navajo name. The Bears Ears are a prominent geographic feature on the landscape and also are a sacred site to Navajo people and other tribes,” the minutes read.
According to a report by Deseret News in August 2016, the effort to secure administration support for a national monument designation received millions from environmental philanthropies Hewlett and Packard foundations, as well as a grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio foundation. The money was channeled to The Wilderness Society’s campaign for Bears Ears and other outside groups.
A native proponent of the monument, Utah Dine’ Bikeyah’s Chairman Willie Grayeyes, told the Deseret News that much of the money went for “mass communications” and “social media.”
Byron Clarke, Vice President of the Navajo Blue Mountain Dine’ and a member of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, opposed the designation and implications that native tribes were proxies for the larger environmental movement.
“The whole tone of it seems like the tribes are generally being used as pawns for the environmental groups to get what they really want,” Clarke said. “They are being played. It is somewhat insulting.”
Under the proposed bill, tribal co-management would ensure local tribal voices, not outside groups, were included in the monuments’ maintenance.
“A key component of this legislative proposal is the enabling of tribal co-management of the Shash Jáa Monument… Congressional sanction of this distinctive and collaborative management agreement would facilitate the active participation of tribal entities in the area,” Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond told the committee.
The co-management would include the Shash Jaa Tribal Management Council, made up of a minimum of four local tribal members.
“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 the table. We all come from different backgrounds, but we want the same results. We want land that is well-managed and accessible to all people,” Benally stated.
“This bill establishes something unique in U.S. history: monument management councils that give all the teams a voice in land management—including, for the first time, the vitally important voice of the Tribes,” Sean Reyes, Utah’s Attorney General, stated.
Natural resource development would be precluded from consideration, as the bill contains a mineral withdrawal that mirrors the original monument designation.
Concern over energy development and mining has dominated coverage of the Bears Ears monument review and reduction. The outdoor industry has been particularly vocal in opposition, citing such concerns.
“This bill is about protecting areas, not opening mining, or oil and gas, development,” Curtis said.
The original Bears Ears designation “does not hold significant energy development potential,” according to a Utah Department of Natural Resources (UDNR) report released in December 2017 and based on the Utah Geological Survey. The vast majority of energy potential resides outside the monument boundary.”
“While there is minimal resource development potential for uranium and potash, there is currently no activity within the boundary. Additionally, there are no coal or wind resources in the area and all the oil and gas wells within the boundary are plugged and abandoned. There are no producing or shut-in wells within the boundary,” UDNR wrote.
Oil and gas wells have been dormant for more than a quarter of a century, according to UDNR. Only 287 wells were ever drilled before the area was designated, with the last recorded production from any well occurring in 1992. Of the handful of productive wells (9 oil and 6 gas), only two had production into the early 1990s, as all of the others pre-date 1985.
“Most of BENM has low oil and gas potential, except the northeastern and southeastern corners; these areas have moderate oil and gas potential. No APDs (applications for permit to drill) exist within BENM,” the report concluded.
With the exception of uranium, the area is not particularly suited nor contains resources for energy production of any kind, with no coal resources, limited solar potential, and no recognized wind or geothermal resources, according to UDNR. The lack of a transmission line also makes any future renewable development “unlikely.”
Kathleen Sgamma, President of Western Energy Alliance, told Western Wire last month that Bears Ears National Monument was not a significant oil and gas play under either the original or revised monument plans.
“Oil and natural gas are not major activities in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, with only a few leases on the periphery of Bears Ears,” Sgamma said. Western Wire is a project of Western Energy Alliance.