A congressional bill touted as an alternative to the Bears Ears proposal, an intertribal request to designate nearly two million acres of land as a national monument in southeast Utah, is moving forward to the full House of Representatives.
The Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, H.R. 5780, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and co-sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) passed 21–13 in the Republican-majority House Natural Resources Committee on September 22.
Committee Democrats, including ranking member Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, expressed several concerns with the bill, saying it did not contain a tribal consultation component or protect half a million acres identified by the tribes in their larger Bears Ears designation request.
Grijalva offered an amendment that would remove the Bears Ears National Conservation and the Indian Creek Wilderness areas from the bill. The Public Land Initiative designates about 1.4 million acres of federal land for “conservation and recreation,” according to a media release from the bill’s sponsors, as well as “exchanges and consolidates certain federal and non-federal land; and provides for economic development within the State of Utah.” Opponents say the measure would open the land to natural-resources development and give a fair amount away to unspecified private interests.
Committee Republicans rejected a total of six amendments from Democrats, including one by California Rep. Raul Ruiz that would have protected land, water, roads or other resources within the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation. Calling H.R. 5780 “legislation that tramples over sovereignty and self-determination” and “a modern-day Indian land grab,” Ruiz said the Ute tribe was denied an opportunity to present their concerns to the committee in a formal hearing and that the bill was fast-tracked to avoid a hearing in the Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs (IIANA) Subcommittee, where Ruiz is a ranking member.
“Without a hearing in the IIANA subcommittee we’re not able to fully discuss the true status of these lands within the Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation,” Ruiz said. “H.R. 5780 would be the first bill to take away these lands from these tribes. Attempting to justify taking away these lands based on misleading questions raised at the federal land subcommittee hearing last week is wrong and glazes over the disastrous impact on the tribe’s reservation and impact on federal Indian policy.”
Located in northeastern Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation—made up of the Whiteriver, Uncompahgre and Uintah bands—is rich in oil and gas deposits. The Bureau of Land Management currently oversees land and minerals for sections of tribal land, but Ute officials, citing that the issue of ownership has been settled by past litigation, affirmed the BLM-managed land lies within its boundaries and say the land should have been placed under trust through the Indian Reorganization Act. The tribe opposes the bill, stating it “proposes to take Indian lands and resources to fix Utah’s problems.”
Democrats during the hearing continually referred to opposition from area tribes, including the bill’s exclusion of 500,000 acres of the Bears Ears region named after two 9,000-foot twin buttes, an area residents say is sacred and contains more than 100,000 archeological sites.
California Republican Tim McClintock said the movement to protect Bears Ears came from outside the Four Corners area, and several tribes in the area have supported the Public Lands Initiative (PLI), including a single elected Navajo official, San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally.
“The testimony that we received from the county commissioner called the claim of the Native American support for the Bears Ears monument campaign a sham,” McClintock said. “She says, ‘I’m here to help you unmask it.’ She did. I’m sorry she didn’t have more sway.”
Ruiz took issue with the characterization of Benally as a spokesperson for the entire Navajo Nation and reminded McClintock about tribal sovereignty.
“First of all, saying that one woman, this Navajo woman acting as a commissioner, using her as a token spokesperson for her tribal nation, that is wrong and not right,” Ruiz said. “The Navajo Nation under their president and their council opposes this land grab and are in solidarity with the Ute Nation. It’s their land; they can decide what to do with their land.”
The Navajo Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe and the Hopi and Zuñi Pueblos support the monument proposal, and created the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition last year after failed attempts to work with Utah representatives.
The coalition formally asked President Obama to designate 1.9 million acres in the area as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the President signing power to create such monuments on federal lands.
During a press tour of the region in July, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the President plans to make a decision on the issue before the end of his term.
The issue has deeply divided the Four Corners community. The day before the House Natural Resources hearing a group of Utah Navajos during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol opposed the monument, saying a monument designation would interfere with Bears Ears access and their traditional way of life. Six of seven Navajo communities in Utah have passed resolutions supporting a monument.
Standing with Utah lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert, Navajo resident Susie Philemon made a direct plea to the President, “Please do not take this land from us. Please don’t break more promises not again," according to the Associated Press.
In a video posted on the day of the Natural Resources meeting, Rep. Bishop, who is committee chairman, said the Public Lands Initiative is a compromise after 1,200 meetings, 50 field trips, and public and private hearings.
“There has been no bill before Congress that has had this kind of transparency and this kind of scrutiny,” Bishop said. “And, in the end of it when we take it to the floor of the House, it will be a good bill that will solve the problems and provide stability moving forward into the future.”