Despite growing Democratic calls for tribal support and proof of longstanding coordination and consultation in the Bears Ears region before the area became a national monument, federal protection for the region could be short-lived or scaled back pending a review by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
President Donald Trump plans to issue an executive order on Wednesday April 26 requiring Interior to review monument designations, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The order, according the Utah newspaper’s source, would evaluate designations made under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to use the power of the pen to designate monuments without congressional approval.
However, while prominent Republicans have claimed that there was little or no consultation about the decision, recently compiled Interior Department documents show a four-year period of contact with Utah lawmakers and area tribes before the Bears Ears region was designated as a national monument. Democrats say this refutes public claims from Republican state and congressional representatives that the designation was enacted without adequate consultation.
“If anyone wants to paint Bears Ears National Monument as a surprise or the product of rushed or incomplete planning, they’ll have to explain hundreds of e-mails and dozens of pages of shared work product,” said U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which released the documents on April 13.
“These documents are an exemplary record of public servants going above and beyond to find a workable solution to a complicated issue, and they show Democrats and Republicans working together more often than not,” Grijalva said in a statement. “The future of Bears Ears should be based on this record of collaboration, not on some after-the-fact political narrative that serves a few narrow interests at everyone else’s expense.”
The President’s request stemmed from Barack Obama’s naming Bears Ears as a monument before he left office, although the review will include another controversial monument, the Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was signed by President Clinton in 1996, according to The Tribune. Since former President Obama signed the proclamation on December 28 designating 1.35 million acres as a national monument in southeast Utah under the Antiquities Act, the state’s congressional and local delegation have sought help from President Donald Trump to scale back or overturn the move.
Obama “misused his authority under the Antiquities Act and violated assurances made by his Interior Secretary to take into account local concerns before making a monument designation,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in a statement after the designation was signed. “This decision ignores the will of the majority of Utahns. It disregards the desire of Native American groups who count these lands as their heritage to co-manage this culturally important area.”
“I’ve had a number of conversations with the President and Secretary Zinke about changes to the monument,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in a video created after a visit to Bears Ears on April 20. “But before we move forward with anything I want to make sure that those local voices that were previously ignored be heard.”
Local business owners agree that some of these special areas do deserve protection, but there is a better way to do it than “locking up 1.5 million acres of land,” Hatch alleged in the video. Standing with a group of Navajos at a meadow between the rock formations creating the ears that give the region its name, he added, “We discussed some of the ways that the monument can be altered so that the lands that deserve protection can remain protected but in a way that’s consistent with the Antiques Act, calling for designations of the smallest areas possible. I do believe that there are going to be changes made to Bears Ears. These beautiful lands deserve cared for and to be protected. But the people who live on these lands should not be trampled by the federal government.”
Despite Hatch’s comments, which in the video are echoed by some local, state and federal representatives, recently compiled Interior Department documents show a four-year period of contact with Utah lawmakers and area tribes before the Bears Ears region was designated as a national monument. Democrats say this refutes public claims from Republican state and congressional representatives that the designation was enacted without adequate consultation.
Documents requested by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform show that as early as 2013, then–U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell had phone calls or meetings with Hatch, representatives Bob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, and their staffs, in addition to giving technical assistance feedback on their alternative to a national monument, the Public Lands Initiative. Documents also show monument designation support in 2015 from the adjacent Navajo Nation “to prevent this rapid destruction of lands in the San Juan County region important to Native peoples, formal protection as a national conservation area or national monument is required.”
Utah’s governor, state agencies, lawmakers and activists were also in contact with the Interior Department and were given a map for conservation areas and land management options, according to a compiled department timeline.
During Senate confirmation hearings, new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he would visit the region but also said he would defer to states for managing monuments. No information was available as to whether Zinke, a proponent of oil and gas development, has scheduled a Utah visit. E-mails sent to Interior requesting comment went unreturned.
Zinke said he supports “the creation of monuments when there is consent and input from local elected officials, the local community, and tribes prior to their designation,” spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement to The Washington Post, adding that the secretary “believes monuments are beneficial, but ‘careful consideration is required before designating significant acreage.’ ”
The five tribes who formally asked for the monument designation have created an advisory committee as required by the proclamation and have requested a meeting with Zinke to discuss management priorities.
The tribes have created the Bears Ears Commission and say they are ready to work with Zinke, and local, state and federal entities, “all those involved to make a working product,” said commission member James Adakai, Navajo Nation president of the Oljato Chapter in Utah. “We intend to incorporate tribal cultural knowledge and expertise into the plan, at the same time we are working with the BLM and also U.S. Forest Service.”
Western Democrats have also joined in tribal support, with a letter to the President calling on him to “protect public lands for all Americans.”