Sen. Mike Lee presses Interior nominee Deb Haaland on pending fate of Utah monuments

If confirmed, the New Mexico representative would lead the review of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase.

(Jim Watson | Pool via AP) Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., delivers a gift to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, before the start of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior secretary, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

All Americans should get a say in how national monuments are designated and managed — including those who make a living off the land — Rep. Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s historic nominee for Interior secretary, said as her Senate confirmation hearing got underway Tuesday.

Her remarks came in response to a question posed by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who came to the hearing armed with a letter New Mexico’s second-term Democratic congresswoman penned two years ago to the Interior Department in which she questioned the influence the agency gave miners and livestock grazers on its decisions regarding the Beehive State’s national monuments.

“Do you think it’s appropriate for stakeholders, people who have some sort of economic interest in the land or some sort of connection to the land — like communities where people use those lands for grazing and for other purposes incidental and necessary to their day-to day lives— to be involved in the national monument designation process?” Lee asked at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting. “Were you saying in that letter that you think that [such] people shouldn’t have a role in it?”

Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo trying to become the first Native American to hold a Cabinet post, responded that “folks on the ground, stakeholders, everyone deserves to have a say.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland would lead the review ordered by Biden into restoring the boundaries of southern Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments that the Trump administration reduced by 2 million acres.

Lee opposed the 2016 Bears Ears designation and championed the subsequent reduction of both Utah monuments. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and other political leaders have called on the Biden administration to pursue a “collaborative” solution to the monument question, preferably involving legislation.

“In Utah, national monuments have become something of a political football, and they’re certainly poised to become even more of a political football, one that’s tossed back and forth between political parties,” Lee said. “Do you think it’s helpful when monuments end up bouncing back and forth between presidential administrations? Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the American people and those who live near and are affected by these lands?”

Haaland replied: “It does appear that those things have gone back and forth depending on who’s in office.

Lee observed that of the 11.5 million acres of national monument designations over the past 25 years, 3.2 million acres, or 28%, were in Utah, suggesting one state has borne the brunt of some presidents’ zeal to prevent full use of public lands.

Lee’s queries continued, delivered more in the form of a lecture as he revisited the designations by Democratic presidents of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, at 1.3 million and 1.9 million acres, respectively. Both were established under a 1906 law that empowers presidents to designate monuments to protect antiquities and other objects of historic and scientific interest.

“That’s larger than two Delawares‚” Lee said, referring to Biden’s home state. “Now, do you think monuments of this size accurately reflect and embody the charge that Congress provided in the Antiquities Act, to the effect that, quote, ‘The limits of the parcels shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected?’”

Haaland responded by talking up the natural and cultural wonders for which Utah is famous.

“I’m a little jealous that you’re from Utah and I’m from New Mexico because I know you have so much beautiful land there and a lot of history,” she said. “I’ve been to Bears Ears and the Pueblo Indians’ ancestral homeland is there. And I realize it covers a very wide space.”

Lee cut her off, saying he “appreciated” her compliment to Utah.

“But the monument designation doesn’t make them more beautiful,” he said. “It does tend to make the communities that don’t support them impoverished. And that’s what concerns me.”

The Utah senator’s assertion is not supported by various economic analyses, which have found that communities near protected landscapes, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, fare better economically. Additionally, the commissions of Grand and San Juan counties are both on record calling on Biden to restore the Bears Ears’ boundaries established by President Barack Obama.

A pledge to balance energy and climate change

Over the course of more than two hours of questioning by various senators Tuesday, Haaland pledged to embrace a balanced approach and science in managing the nation’s publicly owned lands and natural resources that support the economies of Utah and other Western states.

“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services,” Haaland told the committee. “But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed. Together, we can work to position our nation and all of its people for success in the future, and I am committed to working cooperatively with all stakeholders, and all of Congress, to strike the right balance going forward.”

As a child in a military family, Haaland moved a lot, attending a different school nearly every year. But she always spent summers in her grandparents’ village in New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo.

“It was there that I learned about our culture from my grandmother by watching her cook and by participating in traditional feast days and ceremonies,” she told senators considering her nomination to serve as Interior secretary. “It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth.”

Haaland’s grandparents’ place was in Mesita, 43 miles west of Albuquerque, part of the district she has represented in Congress since 2019.

Interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies that play important roles in Utah. As Biden’s Interior boss, she would play a key part in implementing his climate agenda, which calls for transitioning away from fossil energy to renewable sources and conserving 30% of the nation’s lands and waters.

If confirmed, the 60-year-old Haaland, would shepherd a department that oversees 500 million acres of public lands. Interior is also responsible for the welfare of Native Americans, a role that it has mishandled in the past, and oversees 50 million acres held in trust for tribes.

Her nomination is viewed as a historic gesture toward establishing a relationship of trust between the federal government and the nation’s 574 Indigenous tribes.

“The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me,” Haaland said. “Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.”

She faces skeptical Western Republicans

Because of her past opposition to fossil fuel development on public land, however, Haaland’s confirmation is far from certain. Republican senators from Western energy states — including Lee, Montana’s Steve Daines and Wyoming’s John Barrasso, the energy committee’s ranking member — have voiced reservations about supporting her, citing her embrace of the proposed Green New Deal.

In his opening remarks, Barrasso said Biden’s recent move to “ban” oil and gas leasing on federal lands could cost Wyoming 33,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

“I’m willing to work with Rep. Haaland and the Biden administration to conserve our national parks and our monuments, to uphold our nation’s trust responsibilities and to protect multiple use of our public lands,” Barrasso said. “But if Rep. Haaland intends to use the Department of Interior to crush the economy of Wyoming and other Western states, then I’m going to oppose the nomination.”

In her opening remarks, Haaland sought to assure the committee that she is sensitive to the potential economic impacts Biden’s climate policies could have on working Americans and that she would listen to GOP senators’ concerns while she implements them.

“I’m not a stranger to the struggles many families across America face today. I’ve lived most of my adult life paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “It’s because of these struggles that I fully understand the role Interior must play in the president’s plan to build back better; to responsibly manage our natural resources to protect them for future generations — so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish and pray among them.”

The committee adjourned Tuesday after more than two hours of questioning and will resume its examination of Haaland’s nomination Wednesday.