Tribal leaders slam Utah Rep. Curtis’ bill to redraw Bears Ears, say management plan is tribal ‘in name only’


(AP file photo) Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, as seen in 2015. The Navajo leader was among tribal officials who testified Tuesday before Congress in opposition to Utah Rep. John Curtis’ proposal for managing the new Shash Jaa National Monument, on land that once was part of the former Bears Ears National Monument — before it was rescinded by President Donald Trump.

Tribal leaders are blasting Rep. John Curtis over a bill he contends would empower them to manage the new Shash Jaa National Monument, the 130,000-acre preserve President Donald Trump carved out of the former Bears Ears National Monument.

Appearing before a House committee Tuesday, Navajo President Russell Begaye said his tribe was never consulted about Curtis’ proposal, which seeks to write into law Trump’s Dec. 4 action dismantling Bears Ears into two smaller monuments covering just 15 percent of the 1.35 million-acre monument that President Barack Obama designated in southeast Utah at the request of five Indian tribes.

Despite that, Begaye told members of Congress, the bill uses the Navajo word for “bears ears” in its title: “Shash Jaa.”

“In addition to providing a misleading bill name to suggest the Navajo nation supports the bill, HR4532 also misleadingly states its purpose is to create the first tribally managed national monument,” Begaye told the House Natural Resources Committee. Far from empowering tribes, it would put local politicians and “handpicked” Native Americans in charge.

“The management in this bill is tribal in name only,” Begaye said.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Utah Rep. John Curtis, as seen in June 2017. The freshman Republican is proposing a management plan for the new Shash Jaa National Monument, the 130,000-acre preserve President Donald Trump carved out of the former Bears Ears National Monument.

Tuesday’s hearing was an extension of one held Jan. 7, when tribal leaders were conspicuously absent from the witness list. At the insistence of its Democratic members, the Natural Resources Committee held the follow-up meeting to hear from the tribes that proposed the monument Obama designated and oppose the Curtis bill.

Speaking in support were Curtis’ predecessor Jason Chaffetz, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo member, who fought the Bears Ears designation.

Reyes invoked a Super Bowl analogy in saying the bill “uniquely brings governments and residents together, creates councils that give all these teams a voice in how these monuments will be managed including for the first time the vitally important voice of the tribes.”

(Steve Griffin / Tribune file photo) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

“This innovation allows the teams to give custom-tailored responses to the fans’ needs,” he continued, “and delivers promises of shared management authority that the prior administration made but did not keep because such authority must come from Congress.”

In a recent op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune, Curtis defended his bill, saying it gives “local Utah tribes” real authority over the monument by creating a management council that includes four members of the Navajo and Utah Mountain Ute tribes.

But his tribal critics contend it would accomplish the opposite because the council would include San Juan County commissioners and tribal members selected not by their tribes, but by the U.S. president, in consultation with Utah’s congressional delegation.

“The bill would totally exclude Hopi from the new management council, diminish the area that it protects, and opens it up to grazing and motorized vehicles that would detrimentally impact this sacred landscape,” said Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council. “To the Hopi people, Bears Ears National Monument is a spiritually occupied landscape.”

While they have undisputed cultural ties to Bears Ears, the Ute, Zuni and Hopi don’t qualify as “local” because their reservations lie wholly outside San Juan County. Accordingly, Curtis left those tribes — which were among the five that proposed the monument — off the management council.

“Even worse than being untrue, [Curtis’] actions attempt to disrupt and undermine our tribal governments,” said Tony Small, vice chairman of the Ute Business Committee. “This is an attack on our sovereignty and violates the United States treaty and trust in government-to-government relations with Indian tribes.”

The tribal leaders all decried a legacy of illegal looting and vandalism that has plagued archaeological sites across southeastern Utah for decades.

Anticipating those concerns, Curtis’ bill would create archaeological resource protection zones and devote 10 law enforcement officers to patrol the vast area currently served by only a single officer, Chaffetz testified.

But the provision of Curtis’ measure only partially comforted Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, the Ute Mountain Utes’ representative, who said her tribe would welcome “more boots on the ground.”

“Are we gong to have those 10 [officers] after hours when a lot of the vulnerable time period comes?” Lopez-Whiteskunk asked. “Not everything happens in the daylight.”

Chaffetz said officers would be on-duty round the clock, seven days a week.

Curtis’ op-ed in The Tribune also incorrectly asserted his legislation “explicitly bans any new mining, drilling and other resource development” inside the original monument boundaries, a claim repeated by Reyes and Benally on Tuesday.

Instead, HR4532 would withdraw the lands from future “mineral entry,” meaning they would not be open for leasing, just as Obama’s monument proclamation required. But the bill has no bearing on existing mining claims and oil and gas leases that blanket portions of the former monument. As part of Trump’s proclamation dismantling Bears Ears, those lands would be available for industry to make mineral claims and nominations for future leasing, starting Friday.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said he has asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to issue an emergency extension to the mineral withdrawal to prevent any further mining claims. Grijalva also predicted the tribes will prevail in their lawsuit to restore the monument.

Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) San Juan County County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo tribal member and opponent to President Barack Obama's original declaration of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Benally, the lone Navajo on the San Juan County Commission, lavished praise on Curtis for “listening to a group that has been silenced too long.”

“The land is our inheritance, handed down generation to generation. We treasure the land,” she said. “We take care of the land. No group of people has more to lose or gain than the local tribes. No longer will our people be shut out of meetings with our interests not protected.

She argued the Curtis bill would guarantee public access to the Bears Ears region.

“We use the land for hunting, wood cutting, gathering medicinal plants and traditional ceremonies,” Benally said. “By creating the Shash Jaa tribal management council, you are giving the native people the opportunity to manage land of their ancestors while working to improve public access and protection all interests.”

She repeated her long-standing allegation that the Bears Ears monument was orchestrated by environmental groups and other outside “special interests,” which “romanticized” Native Americans in an effort to gain control of the land and restrict access.

Begaye, however, rejected that characterization of the monument campaign, which he said culminated an 80-year effort by tribes to protect a publicly owned landscape that is largely outside any Indian reservation lands. The Navajo Nation Council unanimously endorsed Obama’s Bears Ears designation, while 90 percent of Utah Navajo support it, he said.

“The only special interest that concerns me,” Begaye said, “is uranium mining.”