Let’s not fail in our second chance to protect Bears Ears

Let’s not fail in our second chance to protect Bears Ears
© Josh Ewing

Utah’s new Republican Rep. John Curtis wasted no time in leaping into the mess created by Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGrand Staircase-Escalante: A conservation triumph is headed for future as playground for industry McConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal GOP offers to ban cameras from testimony of Kavanaugh accuser MORE, Secretary of the Interior Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Big-game hunters infuriated by Trump elephant trophy debacle Interior moves ahead with opening wildlife refuge next to contaminated nuclear site MORE, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE in the Utah canyon country surrounding Bears Ears buttes. I just wish Curtis had asked for citizen comments before introducing his radical Shash Jaa and Indian Creek National Monument Act.

The congressman’s bill is premature, since three pending lawsuits have challenged the legality of the president’s 85 percent evisceration of Bears Ears National Monument. The courts may well take us back to the original boundaries.

Curtis’s bill aims to make this litigation moot through congressional action, endorsing the petty politics of Trump’s two small national monuments. But his bill has two fatal flaws.

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First, his proposal ignores tribal sovereignty, which lies at the core of the relationship between Native American tribes and the United States. 

 

The representatives of the five tribes that envisioned the Bears Ears National Monument negotiated with the Obama administration on behalf of their respective elected tribal governments. Curtis introduced his bill without consulting these five Native nations, without listening before he acted. In doing so, he followed the timeworn path of disrespect taken by Utah Republican Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopLand and Water Conservation Fund is good for business Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Looking to the historic leasing program to alleviate the maintenance backlog in national parks MORE and Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzMatt Schlapp: Trump's policies on Russia 'two or three times tougher than anything' under Obama Tucker Carlson: Ruling class cares more about foreigners than their own people Fox's Kennedy chides Chaffetz on child migrants: 'I’m sure these mini rapists all have bombs strapped to their chests' MORE, whose failure left the tribes no choice but to appeal to President Obama for action. 

When I first ventured into Indian Country as a naïve young white writer, Native people were quick to educate me about tribal sovereignty. The United States must deal with Indian nations as they would the state of Utah, on a government-to-government basis. Every federally recognized tribe is fiercely proud of their sovereign status. Discounting tribal leaders is like snubbing an elected state governor or member of Congress.

Curtis would ignore tribal officials and instead have the president and Utah congressional delegation choose Native members of “management councils.” By doing so, Curtis returns us to the benighted days when the Great White Father listened only to those he wanted to hear.

His bill’s second flaw stacks these management councils with anti-monument voices from state and local government, then requires federal land managers to “adhere to the management plan” the councils create. This may well be the most radical policy in Curtis’s bill — withdrawing management authority over federal public lands from the agencies that steward them.

Curtis has elevated above the national interest the misinformed concerns of a few hundred noisy citizens in Utah’s San Juan County. Instead of allowing trained professionals to carry out their mission as clearly defined by federal law, he would turn over the monument to people who show unswerving antipathy toward public lands.

Curtis is on the right track when he proposes a mining ban within the full 1.35 million acres of Bears Ears National Monument. That suggestion is revealing, since he’s acknowledging the need to protect all the land in the Obama proclamation.

The congressman lays out creative protections for archaeological and cultural sites — but primarily within the 15 percent of the Bears Ears monument that survived the administration’s assault. When he says these new scientific advisors and law enforcement rangers will also address “surrounding areas,” let’s hope he means the more than 1 million acres of Bears Ears omitted by the new Shash Jaa and Indian Creek designations. If not, tens of thousands of irreplaceable sites will be left exposed to looting and desecration.

Curtis was famously transparent and accessible in his previous position as the mayor of Provo, Utah. He now has the opportunity to use those skills — unique in an arrogant and inaccessible Utah congressional delegation — to bring people together for a true “reset” for Bears Ears. He’ll need to withdraw this flawed bill or drastically rewrite it to create full protections within the original monument boundary.

Curtis has said, “bring me good ideas, and I’ll work with you.” But it’s up to the congressman to go to the tribes and listen. After centuries of mistreatment and paternalism, the tribes consistently receive nothing but ignorant dismissal from the dominant society. Curtis must earn back their respect by respecting them.

The longer he waits, the more often he votes in lockstep with the president and doctrinaire conservatives, the smaller window he has to forge his own path. Rep. Curtis has a remarkable opportunity, and so do we. Any decent legislation must respect the tribes, safeguard endangered resources, and preserve federal authority over these treasured public lands. Let’s bombard him with our good ideas and insist on full protection for Bears Ears National Monument.

Stephen Trimble serves on the board of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, the "friends" organization for the monument. His most recent book is "Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah's Public Lands."