By Kevin Gale | Photos courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management
The fight to restore Bears Ears is in full swing with five Native American Tribes participating in a lawsuit in federal court in Washington.
A key part of the argument is that President Donald Trump overstepped his authority by decreasing the size of Bears Ears. The plaintiffs argue that only Congress can reduce the size of national monuments.
There also are local political developments, with two members of the Navajo Nation elected to the three-member commission for San Juan County in Utah, which encompasses Bears Ears. Their election undermines a contention of the Trump administration about local support for shrinking Bears Ears.
By early December, there were already near 100 docket items on the case of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Zuni Tribe, against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Brian Steed, Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue and Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tony Took.
On Nov. 19, 26 senators and 92 U.S. representatives filed an amicus brief that says the boundary reductions are legally void and contradicts congressional intent as expressed in the Antiquities Act of 1906.
With a new Democratic majority in the U.S. House, including the first two Native American women representatives, Trump also no longer has a Republican majority that could help back his position.
While Bears Ears has many sacred aspects for the tribes, what ultimately happens also could have a major impact in the world of economic development. The Trump administration’s actions are widely viewed as an effort to open the area for exploitation of minerals and fossil fuels.
A Jan. 13, 2018 New York Times article reported how there are 300 uranium mining claims in Bears Ears, and the majority fall into areas that now have lost their protected status under the shrinkage plan. The Times says a uranium mining company distributed a map of areas it wanted to remove from protection and gave them to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke when he visited the monument in May 2017.
While the Trump administration has been enthusiastic about supporting nuclear power, including weaker groundwater protections, previous uranium mining efforts in Indian Country have left behind toxic wastes, negatively impacting Native Americans’ health.
Job loss possible
While mining might create some jobs, Headwater Economics in 2012 released a report on how protected federal lands have boosted employment in Utah and other western areas.
The study, which covered from 1970 to 2010, found that western non-metro counties with more than 30 percent of their land base in federal protected status increased jobs by 345 percent. Non-metro counties with no protected federal land increased jobs by 83 percent.
“As the share of federal lands in protected status goes down, the rate of job growth declines as well,” the report says.
The report also found that the non-metro counties in the west with protected federal lands have higher per-capita incomes than counties without protected lands—up to $6,540 a year for a county that has 150,000 acres of protected land.
The Bears Ears fight is getting some prominent media attention.
KUED, the University of Utah’s PBS station, produced a one-hour documentary that looked at the controversy from an array of angles. It can be viewed at this link: https: www.kued.org/whatson/kued-productions/battle-over-bears-ears.
The Denver Post on Dec. 6 ran a lengthy opinion column by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies and U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
A key part of their column said: “This lawmaker coalition, which includes both House and Senate Democratic leadership, represents a strong congressional rebuke to the Trump administration’s insistence that public lands are rightfully the property of oil, gas and coal companies—and puts the administration on notice that it should expect strong oversight of its industry-first agenda in the next Congress.”
The public has also had an opportunity to weigh in on the debate with a public comment period that ended on Nov. 15 on the Bureau of Land Management website. The bureau says the comments will be reviewed as part of the final environmental impact statement for Shash Jáa and Indian Creek, which are the remnants of Bears Ears.
The Case for Bears Ears
The Trump Administration is trying to get the Bears Ear suit dismissed, which resulted in a Nov. 15 filing by the plaintiffs about why that shouldn’t happen.
“To the Tribes, it is a living and vital place where ancestors passed from one world to the next, often leaving their mark in petroglyphs or painted handprints, and where modern-day tribal members can still visit them,” the filing says. The Trump administration’s actions removed 85 percent of the original monument lands from protection and removed 100 percent of protection from tens of thousands (and likely more) of objects in the excised lands, which the Antiquities Act is designed to protect.
The filing refers to President Barack Obama’s proclamation establishing the Bears Ears National Monument.
“Rising from the center of the southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe or ‘Bears Ears.’ For hundreds of generations, Native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountaintops, which constitute one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States,” the proclamation states.
The living nature of the land is symbolized with how the Ute Indians still celebrate the Ute Bear Dance, which is a ceremony of spring’s awakening.
“All of the Tribes and their members continue to regularly use Bears Ears to collect plants, minerals, objects and water for religious and cultural ceremonies and medicinal purposes; hunt, fish and gather; provide offerings at historical sacred sites; and conduct ceremonies on the land. In fact, Bears Ears is so culturally and spiritually significant that some ceremonies use items that can only be harvested from Bears Ears,” the filing states.
Some of the sites at Bears Ears predate the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge with some of the sites dating back 13,000 years, the filing notes.
Tribes and their allies have worked 80 years leading to the Obama proclamation, the filing says. A tribal coalition was developed so the tribes could work with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to manage the land and preserve tribal archaeological treasures. The Obama Administration did not designate all the land the tribes wanted, only 1.35 million acres out of 1.9 million.
“The Trump Proclamation provided almost no justification for removing Antiquities Act protections from 1.1 million acres of public lands and tens of thousands of historical objects. Instead it stated in conclusory fashion that “[some] of the objects [the Obama Proclamation] identifies are not unique to the monument and some of the particular examples of these areas within the monument are not of scientific or historic interest,” the filing states. “This is false.” ♦