Utahns react to Biden’s history-making choice of Interior secretary

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland would be the first Native American to serve in the role would have a big impact on the West.

FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland, N.M.-1st Dist., does a PSA for her Twitter account in downtown Albuquerque, N.M. Internet access, health care and basic necessities like running water and electricity within Indigenous communities have long been at the center of congressional debates. But until recently, Congress didn't have many Indigenous members who were pushing for solutions and funding for those issues. Hope is growing after the Native delegation in the U.S. House expanded by two on Election Day joining four others that were reelected. (Jim Thompson/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

Utah’s tribal leaders, Indigenous groups and conservationists celebrated reports Thursday that Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, will be President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to become secretary of the Interior. If confirmed, she’d be the first Native American to serve in any presidential Cabinet.

Some industry groups and conservative lawmakers in the state offered their congratulations as well as their concerns that she’ll move to reverse the decisions of President Donald Trump.

The Interior secretary has a major influence on Utah, a state where more than two-thirds of its lands are owned by the public.

Over the past several weeks, a wide range of environmental and liberal groups joined 130 tribal leaders in pressuring the Biden administration to tap Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, to lead the department. Interior oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

“The appointment of Deb Haaland is not only historic,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement, “but it also sends a clear message to all tribes and people across America that the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to addressing the wrongs of the past and clearing a path for real change and opportunity for tribal nations.”

Biden campaigned on a promise to restore the 1.3-million acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, which was created by President Barack Obama in 2016 and reduced to 15% of its original size the following year by Trump. The president also shrunk Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

If confirmed, Haaland would likely play a key role in any negotiations to reverse cuts to the monuments, which was created at the request of five Native American tribes with ancestral ties to the culturally rich region.

“I feel very confident in [Haaland],” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe who served on the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in the lead up to the monument’s creation. “I feel like she can bring a nice, strong sense of leadership in advocating for Native Americans in general.”

Lopez-Whiteskunk said Haaland’s appointment could be instrumental in helping reshape the Native American advisory committees set up to direct monument decisions that were altered at the time of the reductions.

“She has a good eye over the bigger picture in an Indian country,” Lopez-Whiteskunk continued. “That’s always something important because sometimes people get installed in these positions, but don’t always have a clear view of what the job entails in terms of the trust responsibility to Native American tribes.”

Woody Lee, a member of the Navajo Nation and the executive director of the Indigenous-led advocacy group Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), which supports the restoration and expansion of Bears Ears National Monument, called Haaland’s appointment “an advancement for all the people of the United States.”

“Rep. Haaland is my nominee of cultural choice,” Lee said. “She not only holds traditional knowledge, but possesses the skills, knowhow and bipartisan relationships to begin addressing some of the most challenging issues in our country. She fully reflects UDB’s mission, which is all about healing the earth and its people.”

Support for Haaland’s nomination was echoed by a wide range of environmental organizations from the Sierra Club and Center for Western Priorities to the Sunrise Movement.

Not all Utahns were celebrating the pick, though.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said it “remains to be seen” but worried that Haaland, if appointed, would listen only to “special interest” environmental groups and ignore local desires.

He praised the work of Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who he said cut red tape to reduce overregulation, and hoped Haaland wouldn’t reverse his actions wholesale.

“I really hope that she will consider the good work that has been done before she makes decisions based on what the special interest groups are going to want,” he said in an interview. “Let’s face it: they’re going to want both monuments reinstated, they’ll want everything reversed and everything overnight taken back. That’s just not responsible. It really isn’t.”

Pollock represents part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area, which Trump slashed by 1 million acres at the same time he cut a sizable swath of acreage from Bears Ears National Monument. The five Native American tribes in the Bears Ears coalition and a host of environmental groups sued over the reductions, and the issue has yet to be heard in federal court.

A spokeswoman for Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, declined to provide a statement about Haaland’s apparent nomination. A spokesperson for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the ranking member on that committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox said he looked forward to working with Haaland, if confirmed.

“It’s a historic moment to have the first Native American nominated to lead the Department of Interior,” he said in a statement. “In Utah, we love our public lands and we’re proud of how we balance conservation with recreation, energy use, grazing, and the other demands on the land. While public lands issues can be difficult, we are eager to work with Rep. Haaland on solutions.”

The Interior secretary has broad authority to direct decisions related to conservation, mining and drilling on federal public land. A coalition of 538 environmental and social justice groups, citing concerns over climate change, called on the Biden administration this week to fulfill his campaign pledge to pause all new fossil fuel drilling on public lands.

But Utah industry groups have opposed the drilling ban and have pointed to a recent study that suggests such a ban could have significant impacts on the state’s economy — sentiments that were reflected in reactions to the news of Haaland’s impending nomination.

Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, congratulated Haaland, noting that she hails from a neighboring public lands state with a substantial mining industry.

As such, he expressed confidence that Haaland “understands the essential role that responsible extractive industries play in maintaining our nation’s energy independence, producing critical minerals necessary for our economic and national security, providing the raw materials necessary to re-shore and protect our supply chains, and ensuring the health of rural economies throughout the West,” he said.

Haaland has been critical of policies that have opened public land to oil and gas drilling.

Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said the group was looking forward to working with her and planned to engage the new administration “to make sure they understand the value oil and gas workers bring to the state and the global fight on climate change.”

Utah’s oil and gas industry “maintains an impeccable safety record” and collaborates on air quality solutions across the Wasatch Front, she noted in a statement.

“As the one of the nation’s largest producers, Utah’s oil and gas sector is also responsible for vast numbers of jobs, economic development and revenue for valuable state-funded community programs we all depend on, especially in rural Utah,” Hrenko-Browning concluded.