Trump singles out new Bears Ears monument as an 'abuse' of government's power

The Bears Ears Buttes in Utah area framed with summer wild flowers. Photo: Tim Peterson

President Donald Trump is setting his sights on a new target: a national monument that enjoys strong support across Indian Country.

A diverse group of tribes rallied together to push for the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Former president Barack Obama heeded their call by protecting 1.35 million acres of sacred lands, burial grounds, archaeological sites and other important places in the southeastern part of the state.

But while Trump acknowledged the unique nature of Bears Ears -- “I hear it’s beautiful,” he said on Wednesday -- he sounded a lot more concerned about the non-Indians in Utah. So he's ordered the new leader of the Department of the Interior to determine whether the monument meets their standards.

“I am signing a new executive order to end another egregious abuse of federal power, and to give that power back to the states and to the people, where it belongs,” Trump said during a ceremony at Interior's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The executive order gives Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke 45 days to review the Bears Ears designation. Yet his department was quick to point out that the monument hasn't been undone by the new directive.

The White House on YouTube: President Trump Gives Remarks and Signs the Antiquities Executive Order

“Under the president's leadership, I will work with local, state and tribal governments to review monument designations made the past 20 years and make sure they work for the local communities,” Zinke said in a press release.

But tribal advocates took a different view. They said the executive order overlooks the decades of work, including extensive public outreach, that it took to make Bears Ears a reality.

“The Trump administration’s review of Bears Ears is extremely disappointing because Bears Ears is one of the most important places to Indian Country and the tribes fought long and hard to ensure that this sacred area was protected,” John Echohawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation who serves as executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said in a press release.

Bears Ears has been extremely controversial among non-Indian politicians in Utah. They point out that the federal government already controls more than 60 percent of the land in the state.

“I applaud the Trump administration’s clear commitment to do what past administrations refused to do, actually talk to real people who live in the area,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a statement.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred, third from left, met with students from Colorado Mesa University who support of a proposed Bears Ears National Monument in Utah on October 15, 2016. Photo: Navajo Nation Council

But Democrats insist the Obama administration did talk to real people. Zinke's predecessor -- Sally Jewell -- spent four days in the area last July to hear from affected communities before she recommended the establishment of the monument.

“At Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Indian tribes are, for the first time ever, co-managing lands, preserving centuries-old sacred areas that contain troves of antiquities and tell the history of early peoples in the Southwest,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the new vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement.

Through the Bears Ears Commission, the five tribes with ties to the area are supposed to be consulted about decisions affecting the monument. But they have expressed concerns about the way they the process has been handled so far.

Interior hasn't assigned a manager to the park, set up a welcome center or put up signs informing the public about the monument, according to Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred, a Utah resident who is one of his tribe's representatives on the commission. A request for office space for commission hasn't been accepted either.

“This area is sacred not only to the Navajo Nation, but also to the five tribal nations that are represented on the commission,” said President Russell Begaye. “As with any area that holds cultural and spiritual significance, tribes need to maintain that their voices are heard in the decision-making process.”

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: Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

The other members of the commission represent the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Zuni Pueblo. They held their first meetings with federal officials this month and are hoping Zinke will come to the area to see the monument first-hand.

Zinke has repeatedly vowed to respect and promote tribal sovereignty since joining the Trump team in March. Although he didn't mention tribes at all during a briefing at the White House about the forthcoming executive order on Tuesday evening, he's promising to go to Bears Ears as part of his review.

“I am going to be out there. There’s no doubt I’m going out there,” Zinke told reporters, according to the transcript. “I would have been sooner, but we had the first Cabinet meeting.”

Bears Ears gets its name from two mesas, or buttes, the resemble the ears of a bear, heeded as one of the most powerful animals by various tribes. The area is home to numerous ancestral villages and tribal citizens continue to visit the region for ceremonies and for hunting, gathering and other activities.

Chief Manuelito, one of the most significant leaders of the Navajo Nation, was born near the mesas in 1818. He later signed the historic 1868 treaty with the United States after his people were forced to march hundreds of miles to a military fort in neighboring New Mexico.

Looting of sacred and archaeological sites prompted tribes to seek greater protections for Bears Ears. They are also worried about motorized vehicles and human traffic -- campers once burned down a 19th-century hogan that was home to a Navajo family by using the structure as firewood.

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