These cliff dwellings are among the ancestral tribal sites being excluded from the Bears Ears National Monument by the Trump administration. Photo: Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

Tribal leaders finally invited to hearing on GOP bill to gut Bears Ears

Tribal leaders with connections to the Bears Ears National Monument are finally getting their say on Capitol Hill amid efforts to erode protections on their ancestral lands.

The Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe were the driving forces for the monument in Utah. Yet their historic achievement barely lasted a year before President Donald Trump issued a proclamation that gutted Bears Ears by 85 percent.

The tribes are now fighting the new administration in court, challenging the president's authority to reduce the size of the monument. But if Trump's allies in Congress have their way, the lawsuit will be rendered null.

That's because a Republican-sponsored bill being considered at a hearing on Tuesday would confirm the much-smaller size of the monument, all without addressing the issues in the lawsuit. As a result, millions of acres of ancestral villages, sacred grounds, burial sites and archaeological resources will lose crucial protections, according to tribal leaders.

The controversial bill "attempts to take a monument designated to protect and preserve tribal cultural and natural resources and turn it into a multi-use area for uranium mining, increased motorized vehicles and increased grazing that would damage these sensitive resources," Vice Chairman Tony Small of the Ute Tribe tells lawmakers in his prepared testimony on H.R.4532, the Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act.

Video footage courtesy Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition: President Trump Dismantles Bears Ears National Monument

Small's appearance at the hearing will be remarkable, though it should not be. When the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands first took up the bill earlier this month -- just weeks after it had been introduced -- Republican leaders only invited one tribal government representative.

Facing pressure from Indian Country and Democrats, the panel scheduled another hearing on the measure. This time around, lawmakers actually invited leaders of the five Indian nations that make up the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

In addition to Small, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk of the Ute Mountain Tribe, Carleton Bowekaty from the Pueblo of Zuni, Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva of the Hopi Tribe and President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation are scheduled to testify.

“Protection of these lands is not negotiable,” Begaye said of Bears Ears. “The landscape, as originally designated, is essential to the Navajo people and to the Navajo way of life."

"Diminishing the size of the monument puts hundreds of archeological and cultural sites at risk, and threatens our ability to strengthen our people, practice our religion and pass our traditional practices on to the next generation,” Begaye added.

House Committee on Natural Resources on YouTube: Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4532, the Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act

The hearing comes at a crucial time for Bears Ears. Just a day after the Congressional hearing, a federal judge will hear arguments on the Trump administration's motion to move the tribal lawsuit from Washington, D.C., to Utah.

Judges in the nation's capital are often called to resolve novel and significant legal questions, like the ones the tribes are raising about the Antiquities Act, the federal law that authorizes the president to declare national monuments. The case is primed to move to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considered one of the most important, after the U.S. Supreme Court.

But attorneys from the Department of Justice say the case belongs in Utah due to "strong local interest." Politicians and residents there remain strongly opposed to Bears Ears, especially in San Juan County, where the majority non-Indian power structure has been found to violate the constitutional rights of tribal citizens.

The hearing on the motion to transfer the tribal lawsuit and four others, including one filed by Utah Diné Bikéyah, a grassroots Navajo group that supports Bears Ears, takes place at 11am Eastern in Courtroom 9 before Judge Tanya S. Chutkan. She incidentally was nominated to the bench by former president Barack Obama, who declared the 1.35 million-acre monument in December 2016.

Besides the court case, another deadline is looming this week. At 9am Eastern on Friday, 60 days after Trump's proclamation, the new administration will be able to open lands that were part of the original monument designation to mining, according to the text of the president's directive.

Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior has rejected assertions that mining played a role in the dismantling of Bears Ears. But reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post show how one uranium company was granted a high-level meeting with the Trump team as it pushed for a reduction in the size of the monument.

Energy Fuels Resources of Canada also distributed maps of the areas it wanted removed from Bears Ears when Zinke visited the area last May.

Bears Ears happens to be surrounded on both sides by two of the firm's uranium operations, including one opposed by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The firm also owns a third of the uranium claims within the original Bears Ears designation, according to The Times.

In response, Energy Fuels Resources of Canada denounced report as a "hit piece."

"Uranium is not a partisan Left/Right issue," President and CEO Mark Chalmers said in a statement.

The hearing on H.R.4532 takes place at 10:30am and will be webcast. The witness list follows:
Mr. Jason Chaffetz
Former Member of Congress
Utah’s 3rd District
Alpine, UT

Ms. Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk
Former Ute Mountain Tribe Councilwoman
Former Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair
Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council
Towaoc, CO

The Honorable Tony Small
Vice Chairman
Ute Business Committee
Ute Indian Tribe
Fort Duchesne, UT

The Honorable Carleton Bowekaty
Pueblo of Zuni
Zuni, NM

The Honorable Clark Tenakhongva
Vice Chairman
Hopi Tribal Council
The Hopi Tribe
Kykotsmovi Village, AZ

The Honorable Russell Begaye
Navajo Nation
Window Rock, AZ

The Honorable Rebecca Benally
Vice Chair
San Juan County Commissioners
Monticello, UT

The Honorable Sean D. Reyes
Attorney General
State of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT

Mr. John Tahsuda III
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Indian Affairs
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, DC

Mr. Casey Hammond
Deputy Assistant Secretary
Land and Minerals Management
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, DC

House Subcommittee on Federal Lands Notice:
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4532 (January 30, 2018)

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