Washington • Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told Congress on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s recent move to shrink two national monuments in the state provides a “reset” for all sides of the debate to work on a solution to protect public lands.
In doing so, he backed legislation to name the Shásh Jaa’ and Indian Creek national monuments, a bill that environmentalists, tribal leaders and Democrats say doesn’t go far enough to preserve sacred areas in southern Utah.
Herbert told the House Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands that Trump’s action to split the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah into these two much-smaller monuments was an “opportunity” to use the legislative process to permanently resolve the generational debate over how to manage the area.
While Utah’s congressional members maintain the bill sponsored by Rep. John Curtis empowers tribal members to manage Shásh Jaa’, which covers Bears Ears Buttes and Comb Ridge, they failed to consult with any tribes in drafting this legislation, according to a Utah intertribal leader.
“The tribes are united in opposition to this bill,” Virgil Johnson, an elected Goshute official who heads the Utah Tribal Leaders Council, said Tuesday at a news conference in the Utah Capitol. “As in the past, the United States government desires to come into Indian County and tell Native Americans what is in their best interest.”
He blasted the bill as an obvious attempt to divide the tribes by giving preferential treatment to “local” Native Americans at the expense of those who may live outside San Juan County, yet still have ancestral connections to Bears Ears, where many go for prayer and other traditional practices.
“I recognize there will continue to be controversy and debate over these remarkable areas,” Herbert testified in Washington. “The question is: Does there really need to be? Perhaps I am an idealist, but I hope we can come together and work in good faith, recognizing that we all want these lands to remain public, and we all want to protect their history, archaeology and unique nature.
“I think when we ascribe good motives to each other, we’ll be more likely to have a productive conversation and more likely to reach an optimal solution for the use of our public lands that everyone can live with,” Herbert said.
The Curtis legislation would put into law Trump’s changes, which are being challenged in federal court by the five tribes and environmental groups that sought the monument. The bill would also add law enforcement personnel to the area and ban oil and gas leasing and new mineral claims on the original 1.35 million acres that then-President Barack Obama had designated in December 2016.
It also would restore the Bears Ear Commission, an advisory group of representatives from each of the five tribes that proposed the monument. The Obama proclamation set up this panel to provide recommendations for monument management.
But Curtis’ legislation has earned a swift rebuke by tribal leaders and others who argue it doesn’t protect hundreds of thousands of acres that include cultural sites and sensitive areas. It does set up a management council that includes four Native Americans, but it would allow the president to cherry-pick members, who must be from San Juan County, without input from elected tribal representatives, critics say.
“This bill hands control to county commissioners who oppose the monument and have a long history of anti-public land actions, including one who was convicted of leading an illegal off-road protest ride that resulted in significant damage to cultural resources,” Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said at the Capitol news conference.
Testifying in Washington, Shaun Chapoose, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe’s Business Committee, argued the “bill pours salt on the wound caused by the president’s action” and violates the trust and treaty obligations to federally recognized tribes, which he noted are sovereign governments.
“The bill is laden with language that basically undermines the relationship with the federally recognized tribes,” Chapoose said.
He added that the hearing itself was offensive to tribal governments, given that there are five tribes that pushed for the Bears Ears monument and, “yet, at this hearing, our five tribes are forced to share one seat, while every level of the state of Utah is represented, including: the state government, county government and a Utah stakeholder lobbying group.”
The San Juan County Commission thanked the Utah delegation for advancing the bill, calling it “a measure that celebrates diversity and promotes new ideas and solutions.”
“By supporting HR4532, you are listening to a group that has been silenced for too long and finally allowing us a seat at that table. We all come from different backgrounds, but we want the same results. We want land that is well managed, protected and accessible to all people,” said Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Navajo and outspoken monument opponent, in a news release.
Besides Herbert and Chapoose, the House committee heard testimony from Matthew Anderson of the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute and Suzette Morris, a member of the Posy Band Ute Tribe who lives near the monument area.
Morris told the congressional panel that residents, especially Native peoples, were ignored by Obama’s designation and that Curtis’ bill would give them some say over how the lands near them are managed.
“Our voices have been silenced by special-interest groups funded by Hollywood actors, San Francisco boardrooms and by tribes who do not live anywhere near Bears Ears,” she said, adding that “unfortunately, the Obama monument was done to us, not for us.”
She believes if the Bears Ears monument were allowed to stand, local Native Americans would be denied access to the dirt roads they use to gather wood and medicinal plants, even though the Obama proclamation promised traditional activities always would be allowed.
Curtis said his legislation would better protect sacred areas by adding law enforcement for the region and giving Native Americans legal authority to help manage the Shash Jaa monument.
The bill, he said, would ensure the monuments are “protected for generations to come by law and not subject to the stroke of a pen.”
Anderson, who directs the Sutherland Institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West, echoed that point.
“Without congressional action, Bears Ears, Shásh Jaa’ and Indian Creek will be relegated to nothing more than political footballs being punted back and forth with each change of presidential administration,” Anderson said. “Nobody wins in that scenario — not the archaeological resources, not the environment, and certainly not the people of San Juan County.”
After watching the hearing online in Salt Lake City, Johnson dismissed Anderson’s and Morris’ testimony as “tall tales.” Obama designated the monument at the request of tribal officials with the wishes of local Native Americans in mind, he noted.
Joining Johnson at the Utah Capitol was Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo medicine man, who said the monument’s boundaries should follow spiritual lines and that all his relatives back in Monument Valley support the ones Obama established when he proclaimed Bears Ears.
“Our elders tell us a lot of things about how we use that land, how the boundaries were set by the rivers. We didn’t make that. The Creator is the one that set this aside for us to use, for us to make offerings and do our prayers and gather herbs and firewood and go hunting and use it for basket-weaving materials,” said Yellowman, whose speech alternated between English and Navajo. “It is not for the individual. It’s not for the county or the people in the Blanding area. It’s for the whole different tribes that live out there. Protection means to look after it. We want no drilling or mining. We want the ruins, pictographs and sacred sites protected.”