U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is misrepresenting tribal positions about his plan to reduce a yet unspecified portion of the Bears Ears National Monument while increasing tribal co-management of the site, according to tribal officials and their lawyers.
“I’ve met with the tribes, I’ve talked to tribes, and, quite frankly, I think the tribes, most importantly, desire co-management [of Bears Ears],” Zinke said in a press call hosted by Interior on June 12 after he issued an interim report with recommendations to President Donald Trump in response to Trump’s April 26 “Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act.” Trump’s order is aimed at reducing and rescinding the status of several national monuments throughout the country.
“I think, talking to tribes, they’re very happy,” Zinke said of his proposal, adding that he “talked to all parties, and they’re pretty happy and willing to work with us.”
But this is not so, according to tribal representatives. In a June 12 press call hosted by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said the tribe’s leaders have “maintained a consistent position that they support the monument designation.
“If there is any happiness,” Branch said,” it’s probably that the monument remains intact as of now.
“I think [the ‘happy’ characterization] is probably just a characterization coming from Trump,” Branch added.
Natalie Landreth, a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund who represents the Hopi, Zuni and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes on Bears Ears issues, said during the Udall call that the proclamation that set up Bears Ears as a national monument had already formed a structure in which five tribes, known as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, work together to co-manage the monument.
“It’s unclear exactly what the secretary is suggesting, so until we know more details about what he’s talking about, it’s difficult to have a view on it,” Landreth said. “Our initial reaction on behalf of the three tribes we represent is that this was really a cynical effort to distract Indian country from the devastating blow of reducing the size of the monument.”
Landreth said that some of her impacted tribal clients told her as of June 12 that Zinke had not been in touch with them on this matter.
“We don’t know who he’s talking to and what they may have said,” Landreth said.
She labeled Zinke’s report as a “carrot” approach meant to entice tribes, while hopefully reducing their opposition, and she further believes that Trump’s intention regarding Bears Ears is about “selling off public lands [to the energy sector] for profit.”
Udall said it is clear to him that Zinke did not properly consult with tribes.
“He never adequately engaged the tribes, or the public,” the senator said, noting that the region was protected as a national monument at the request of the Navajo, the Southern Ute, the Ute Mountain Ute, and the Zuni and Hopi tribes.
In his report, Zinke recommended that some portion of Bears Ears, a 1.35 million–acre area of public lands in Utah surrounding a pair of mesas long held sacred by tribes in the region, be rescinded. The monument had been designated as such in December by President Barack Obama.
Zinke could not say specifically during his press call how much of the monument would ultimately be taken away, but members of Congress who have been monitoring this situation closely say that only Congress has the ability under U.S. policy to reduce the size of national monuments.
“There is no acreage attached to it, because we’re not at the point of drawing specific lines,” Zinke said. “It’s a little premature to throw out acreage [numbers].”
Zinke said that he and Jim Cason, the newly hired Interior Associate Deputy Secretary, held several meetings with tribal stakeholders in coming up with the idea. The secretary also met with members of the Utah Republican congressional delegation, including Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), who were apoplectic at Obama’s decision. One of their main arguments is that the monument designation is quashing Utah’s uranium and larger energy industry.
“I have recently talked to members of the tribes and had a discussion on major points,” Zinke added during his press call. Preserving traditional use, antiquities, rituals and cultural traditions were important to him, he said, adding that he wants to preserve “dwellings, archeology sites, drawings and areas that have a strong cultural ritual background.”
Zinke said he wants to be “responsibly responsible” in the management of the selected areas for protection. In addition, Zinke is asking Congress to authorize co-management of the revised boundaries of the monument with the tribes involved.
“Talking to all the tribes, it was imperative that they do have an active management process, and the executive does not have the authority, so we’re asking Congress to go forward with a bill in coordination with the tribal council[s], the intertribal coalition, and affected parties,” he said, adding that there are other monuments that he believes are suitable for co-management. He has also asked Congress to review whether lands inside the current monument are more appropriate to be designated as conservation or national recreation areas.
Branch, however, said that Zinke’s recommendation here “is manifestly unclear,” and she cannot figure out what tribal co-management even means as expressed in Zinke’s report.
“We’re not sure, and I have nothing to inspire faith that that will be something that will be amenable to the tribes,” she said. “It’s just so unlikely that this Congress under this President will act when they were not willing to act previously…. And I don’t have a lot of confidence that this President can move much legislation under his leadership.”
Zinke blamed Obama when asked during his call why he thought the current Republican Congress would approve such a plan now, given that during the previous Republican Congress, a bill sponsored by Bishop focused on similar Bears Ears’ issues had failed.
“Last Congress also had a commander in chief that you had to go through things with the veto,” Zinke said. “And I would give it one word [on why it will succeed now]: President Trump.”
He added that in a conversation he has had with Bishop, the Natural Resources chairman is “committed to co-management.”
Before Obama’s decision, Bishop, along with retiring Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), had tried to create management guidelines for Bears Ears through legislation known as the Public Lands Initiative. But their bill died in the House last year after tribes in the region turned against it, fearing that it would harm tribal sovereignty. If successful, the bill would have transferred 100,000 acres of the Ute Tribe of Utah’s Uncompahgre Reservation to the state of Utah for fossil fuel development.
“[The tribes] are working now to help with input into the bill to make sure that’s it’s done,” Zinke said of his current proposal, adding there is a “consensus of optimism” from stakeholders about his plan. “I have enormous respect for the tribes, and I do want to push sovereignty, respect and self-determination, and I am very sensitive to cultural traditions, rituals, that they have conducted and are continuing to conduct on Bears Ears.”
Per Trump’s executive order, Zinke is also supposed to deliver a larger report to the president in August with recommendations on nearly 30 other national monuments over which Trump has expressed concern.
Many legal experts, including tribal lawyers, have said that a U.S. President does not have the power to eliminate or reduce national monuments through executive action. No president has ever rescinded a national monument designation; if Trump does, lawsuits are widely anticipated.