Sizing them up: Utah rep, not Trump or Obama, meets Navajo needs on Bears Ears
Among land management issues in the American West, Bears Ears National Monument pushed to the forefront of public attention Native Americans’s land issues. President Trump’s downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah forced out many opinions on why Bears Ears should or shouldn’t be a monument. One thing we all can agree upon: the land should be preserved.
My ancestors have long-lasting ties to the area. I come from a great Navajo leader, named K'aayelii. As descendants of K'aayelii, we have a strong bond with the Bears Ears buttes. My ancestors lived on those lands when no other tribes were there. We take immense pride knowing our people never surrendered during the wars of the 1800s in which many members of our tribe were held prisoner in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
When President Obama designated more than 1.3 million acres in San Juan County as Bears Ears National Monument in December 2016, my chapter of the Navajo Nation, Aneth Chapter, closest to Bears Ears, passed resolutions requesting that the president reverse his designation. Why do you think so many Utah Native voices were against the designation?
For one thing, there already are 11 wilderness areas protecting this area; therefore, a monument designation doesn't come with anything more than the paper it was written on. Second, the idea was sold to the public as though it was a “celebrated,” tribally-managed monument, with decision-making at the offices of each tribal chairman/president. The buck stops at each tribal leader? Not so.
All one needed to do was to view the Bears Ears National Monument proclamation on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website to see what a slap in the face its designation was to Native American tribes. The proclamation gave each tribe named a less-than-advisory role in the Bears Ears Commission. “Tribal co-management,” a term adamantly pushed often by special interest groups and environmentalists, was found nowhere in the original Bears Ears proclamation. Monument decisions always were going to remain in the hands of faceless BLM and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) officials.
The committee status of the Bears Ears Commission so far has not included much, if any, input from Native Americans. If it holds meetings they are held in secret, at unknown locations; the only meeting I was ever aware of was held off-site of any reservation, in Bluff, Utah, and controlled by non-elected special interest groups. To this day, none of my constituents can even find a meeting agenda. How are we supposed to have confidence in that process?
President Trump has reduced the size of the original monument boundaries to 201,876 acres and designated two smaller monuments, Shash Ja´a National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument. Within the original Bears Bears Monument boundaries lies the reason the Forest Service was a main player in its management: the Manti-La Sal National Forest. These 1.2 million acres of forested land cover six Utan counties, but mostly San Juan County.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture website for the Manti-La Sal forest leaves blank advisory roles and tribal relations. The website makes no mention of the Aneth, Oljato, Red Mesa, and Navajo Mountain chapters. Utah Navajo and Ute tribal members who actually use the Bears Ears lands were extremely displeased with the lack of interest from our own tribal governments.
Am I pleased that the Bears Ears Monument’s boundaries were reduced? Somewhat. Am I pleased there are two efficiently-sized national monuments where before there was only one? I can live with that. But it’s not enough.
What my Navajos would like to see are lasting protections for the area. Obviously, presidential proclamations to designate monuments could be modified back and forth until the end of time. The answer, then, lies with Congress, which can pass laws that withstand the test of time and presidents.
Our newest Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), elected last month, has Navajo concerns on his mind. We are honored that his first official act as a congressman was to introduce H.R. 4532, the Shásh Jaa’ National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, to create a truly Native American management body with which the public can be involved. As a duly elected official, chosen by the people, I stand with my Utah congressman’s legislation.
Alfred Ben is vice president of Aneth Chapter, an LGA-certified chapterrecognized as an official local unit of the Navajo Nation Government.