Tribes gear up for fight over protections for sacred land in Utah

Leaders from the Cochiti, Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute and Zuni tribes met at Bears Ears in Utah in July 2015 to show their support for protecting 1.9 million acres of sacred and ancestral sites. Photo from Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

Tribes in the Southwest are gearing up for a major political battle as they seek to protect 1.9 million acres of sacred and ancestral sites in Utah

In a historic event, more than 300 tribal leaders and tribal members came together a year ago to form the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Their goal is simple: to preserve the lands they have used for thousands of years.

"The Bears Ears region faces urgent threats from looting, vandalism, and energy development. Protection for this important cultural landscape cannot be delayed any longer," said Walter Phelps, a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council.

The Navajo Nation, is part of the diverse coalition that includes the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Hualapai Tribe and all 20 Pueblo governments. After their cultural exchange at Bears Ears last July, the tribes formally asked President Barack Obama to designate the area as a national monument.

Obama is seriously considering the proposal and has sent Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, along with high-level delegation of Interior Department and Agriculture Department officials, to Utah to tour the area. They are hosting a public meeting in Bluff on Saturday to solicit input about the proposed monument.

"This is a very important moment in the Bears Ears National Monument initiative, which Utah Diné Bikéyah has been working on for over six years," said Willie Grayeyes, the chairman of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group of Navajo citizens that supports protections for the land.

Tribes and environmental groups hope supporters will turn out in force to explain the need to protect Bears Ears. But they are facing significant opposition from Republican politicians who are trying to stop Obama from exercising his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

At the request of a Republican lawmaker from Utah, the House Appropriations Committee added Section 453 to H.R.5538, the fiscal year 2017 Interior appropriations bill. The provision bars Obama from designating monuments in a specific set of counties, including the ones that compromise Bears Ears.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, tried to remove the language from the bill this week. But he lost by narrow 202 to 225 vote on Wednesday and the House passed H.R.5538 on Thursday despite threats of a veto from the White House.

The bill is a long way from becoming law but it's not the only obstacle facing the tribal coalition. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of Natural Resources, finally introduced H.R.5780, the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, on Thursday after months of anticipation.

The 215-page bill designates Bears Ears as a conservation area rather than a national monument. Tribes have been open to a conservation area but they say H.R.5780 only protects about half of the land at Bears Ears.

Even if the boundaries of the conservation area were larger, the coalition says the measure does not offer sufficient protections for the land. Recreational vehicle use, for example, would still be allowed.

"The bill requires all historic uses of the area be continued – even those that have damaged cultural areas," the tribes said in a statement on Thursday.

Conservation groups are also opposing the legislation. With the clock winding down on the 114th Congress -- lawmakers just went on recess for seven weeks and won't return until after Labor Day in September -- they believe the Public Lands Initiative stands little chance of passage in a busy and heated election year.

"The PLI carves up to 600,000 acres of critical lands off of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument and demotes sovereign Native American Tribes to just a voice in the crowd advising how the lands should be managed," Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust said in a press release that was joined by six other groups.

Even though tribes walked away from the Public Lands Initiative late last year, Bishop is defending his proposal as one built with their input. He said it protects 1.4 million acres at Bears Ears and includes co-management language drafted by Utah Diné Bikéyah.

"Utah is a public lands state. It has always been, and it always will be. The question is how those public lands are managed," Bishop said in a press release "That’s where local government has the advantage. PLI takes that premise and builds it to a reality."

As chairman of Natural Resources, Bishop has the power to move the bill quickly. According to a letter he sent to the Secretary Jewell, he is planning to hold a hearing to focus specifically on Bears Ears in late August, to be followed by a legislative hearing in Washington, D.C., after Congress returns to work in September. He anticipates a markup that month, a key step before consideration on the floor of the House.

Campers in Utah destroyed a 19th-century Navajo hogan by using the structure as firewood. Photo from Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

Bears Ears borders the Navajo Nation on the south and the White Mesa Ute Reservation, a satellite community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe on the east. The area is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

According to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, the area is home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites that have been targeted for looting and grave-robbing for more than a century. Between May 2014 and April 2015, more than a dozen looting cases were reported at Bears Ears.

Motorized vehicles and human traffic also pose threats. On one occasion, campers burned down a 19th-century hogan that was once home to a Navajo family by using the structure as firewood.

Despite the dangers, the BLM only employs one full-time officer to patrol the land, according to the coalition. Other federal and state agencies dedicate law enforcement resources to the site but those officers also work in other areas of San Juan County in Utah.

The proposed monument takes its name from the Bears Ears Buttes, a prominent feature of the landscape. Manuelito, a Navajo leader who led his people through a forced march in New Mexico and later signed a treaty with the United States, was born near the buttes in 1818.

The area is still used by tribes for hunting, ceremonies, gathering and other activities.

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