Sparks fly over differing Bears Ears proposals

Long-awaited legislation to define management of 18 million acres of federal land in Utah got a hearing before a House committee in September, but it appears unlikely to become law before President Obama leaves office.

The Utah Public Lands Initiative, HR 5780, sponsored by Utah Republicans Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, is attempting to re-designate public lands in seven eastern Utah counties, based on local stakeholder input. The bill is an attempt to forestall the creation by Obama of one or more national monuments in Utah.

BLM Director Neil Kornze

BLM Director Neil Kornze

The legislation includes San Juan County, home of a region known as “Bears Ears,” as well as the northern Ute land now in the forefront of the dispute.

The PLI bill would split 1.2 million acres of current BLM land around Bears Ears into two National Conservation Areas, with remaining acreage to stay under BLM control.

A number of environmental, conservation and archaeological groups, and 276 American tribes support the national monument proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah Ute) and submitted to the Obama administration for executive action earlier in 2016. They argue that that the hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites in the Bears Ears area in southern San Juan County justify monument status and stronger protection from vandalism and looting, as well as mining and extraction. Their 1.9 million-acre monument proposal includes a provision to establish a unique co-management structure shared between Department of the Interior and five tribes with ancestral ties to the land.

The PLI bill is supported by Utah’s entire congressional delegation and Gov. Gary Herbert, as well as elected officials in seven counties, including all three San Juan County commissioners.

Spirited testimony

The bill was introduced in the U.S. House in August. A hearing was held in September before the House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Bishop.

One of the bill’s provisions would exchange 100,000 acres of scattered Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration sections on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation for a large block of BLM land on the East Tavaputs Plateau, in Uintah and Grand counties. SITLA would get the land and the minerals in the exchange.

That proposed swap has sparked a firestorm.

Six business leaders from the northern Ute tribes wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune. It focused attention on the reservation land exchange that would consolidate acres rich in natural resources to make oil and gas exploration affordable in remote locations. The consolidation would increase royalties to SITLA, a state government enterprise that funds schools, prisons and other government entities with money earned from revenue generated on land designated for this purpose in Utah.

The op-ed charged that the PLI bill attempts “to push through the U.S. House the first Indian land grab in over 100 years, roll back federal policy to the late 1800s. It would have a devastating effect on our reservation and the precedent it sets for federal Indian policy.”

Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the tribal business committee, has since notified SITLA officials that they are no longer welcome in Indian Country.

At the PLI hearing, Colo. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, criticized the bill. He said the Ute Tribe was originally from Colorado “and I plan to stand up for tribal sovereignty because [the PLI] is offensive to the concept of tribal sovereignty as well as our nation’s agreements with tribal nations.”

Polis admonished Bishop, “Certainly, I find it unacceptable that this bill contains language that ranges from a public-land giveaway to failure to protect the Bears Ears region, environmental concerns and of course the fact that the legislation steals land from the Ute Indian Tribe.”

The hearing was fraught with disagreement over various provisions, including BLM and Forest Service management practices and the PLI provisions handing over permitting and regulation of energy development on federal lands to the state. House representatives on both sides of the Bears Ears issue repeatedly questioned the testimony of San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, in order to assess her claims about tribal opposition to the monument proposal.


Her constituents, Benally said, are the Native people of San Juan County. They “have been bullied by the federal government and their own tribes.” She described the Bears Ears monument proposal as a “cynical political stunt, a hoax, entirely the effort of out-of-state interests, so-called environmental and special-interest groups and corporate benefactors.”

“The three tribes in San Juan County, Utah, oppose the national monument proposal,” Benally told the committee.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, asked Benally to explain the fact that six of seven Utah Navajo chapters officially support the monument proposal, as well as 26 Southwest tribes and 250 tribes of the National Congress of American Indians. “Are these resolutions from sovereign units of government important in this decision?” he asked.

“Again, I will qualify my answer by saying that … some of these were passed by only 17 or 18 people versus over 2,000 Utah Navajos that live in the county opposed to the national monument,” Benally replied.

According to the 2010 census there are 7,300 Native Americans living in San Juan County, slightly over 50 percent of the total county population. Oljeto Chapter is the largest of the seven chapters, with just over 2,200 people, while Aneth, Benally’s home chapter, is second-largest with nearly 1,990.

All seven Utah Navajo chapters are very rural. They are characterized by multiple jurisdictions, a mix of political and sovereign boundaries. Each elects a slate of local chapter officials.

Meanwhile, San Juan County’s county commission districts divide Utah Navajo representation between two districts. Benally, District 2, represents five of the seven chapters, where nearly 97 percent of the constituency is Navajo. Bruce Adams, District 1, represents the two most remote districts, Oljeto Chapter in Monument Valley and the furthest west, Navajo Mountain. Representation on the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative branch of the Navajo government, is also split between delegates David Filfred and Herman Daniels, Jr.

Oljeto Chapter president James Adakai told the Free Press people are apprehensive about Benally’s statements because she suggests that their vote of support for the monument doesn’t matter to elected county and state leaders.

“Her comments are causing disharmony,” Adakai said. “I talk with the people in my chapter. Fair representation by local and state officials really concerns them. Representation of our people starts in the chapter-level elections. We support the monument proposal.”

But Benally’s testimony at the hearing maintained that the PLI is best for her people and the protection of Bears Ears. When questioned by Rep. Cresent Hardy of Nevada, a Republican, about looting on public lands, Benally said she believed the monument designation would increase vandalism and theft because she had learned a few weeks before the hearing in a meeting with the BLM “that there was only one incident in the Bears Ears region this past five years. It will in crease because a monument designation brings thousands and thousands of people and there’s less boots on the ground to give protection.”

A fact sheet posted in May on the Friends of Cedar Mesa web page states that the BLM Monticello Field Office investigated at least 28 incidents of looting or vandalism at archaeological sites in San Juan County between 2011 and 2016 on land the BLM manages. The statistics do not include incidents on other federal or state trust lands. There may be more than 50 incidents in San Juan County since 2011. Seven have been reported in the first six months of 2016.

Benally did not reply to a request for an interview.

K’aayelli descendants

Utah Sen. Mike Lee held a press conference a week after the hearing. It drew criticism from tribes for its misrepresentation of tribal authority by showcasing three Blanding people as “Utah Navajo,” implying they represent the Navajo people when they are not elected officials. Governor Herbert and the Utah congressional delegation joined the three Navajo speakers, who explained their ancestral ties to Bears Ears.

It is the “birthplace of our leader, Chief K’aayelli,” Suzie Philomon told the gathering. The local Navajo people rely on Bears Ears, said Lewis Singer. “It’s a place to gather piñon nuts, medicinal herbs and life-sustaining natural resources, such as firewood.”

Danielle Shirley told reporters that monument supporters “appear to be more interested in making profit.” She said a monument designation will bring “high foot traffic, meaning more destruction to our sacred ground, more money to outdoor and environmental groups and corporations and not to the people of the county.”

Philomon alleged that the National Park Service desecrates ancestral burials, citing instances in Canyon de Chelly and Effigy Mounds national monuments. “We, the local natives of San Juan County, Navajos and Utes, as well as Anglos,” said Philomon, “have managed to protect this land and will continue to do so.”

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federal agencies and institutions to return Native American human remains, funerary and sacred objects. NAGPRA also establishes procedures for the inadvertent discovery or planned excavation of Native American cultural items.

Effigy Mounds Superintendent Jim Nepstad told the Free Press that there are 200 ancient mounds in the Iowa park. In 1949-50, and sporadically as late as 1971, there have been 40 or 50 excavations during which archaeologists encountered many burial sites. “The good news is that 20 tribes are all of the same mind with the monument management now, and all of the repatriations have been completed under NAGPRA regulations. They have gone well. They have been put to rest.”

The Descendants of K’aayelli, a nonprofit established in 2014, claim they are heirs to territory around Bears Ears. They say their ancestors occupied the land for more than 400 years until 1933, when they were relocated to Aneth Extension reservation land. In a Sept. 21 statement the group said they have been ignored and misrepresented by Senator Lee, that they take issue with Lee’s press conference announcement referencing “Utah Navajo” in the title and a Descendants of K’aayelli petition of support that does not exist. Their statement lists five Navajo individuals in Lee’s press release, including Philomon, Singer and Shirley, who “are not elected officials (county, state or tribal) and only represent themselves.”

The Sept. 21 statement says, “Through a majority vote of the residents in the Aneth Extension we oppose the UPLI. We speak for ourselves and request that others not speak on our behalf.”

‘A small number’

The Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President also weighed in on Sept. 21, writing that the press conference was “another attempt to show selective opposition to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument by using a handful of members of the Navajo Nation, while ignoring the clear support of the elected leadership of the Navajo Nation.”

In the statement, Council Delegate Filfred, who represents Aneth Chapter, said, “Some Utah politicians are intentionally trying to give the impression that the Navajo Nation and tribal governments are divided and opposed to Bears Ears National Monument, when just the opposite is true. They put forward the voices of a small number of Native Americans opposed to the Bears Ears Monument but fail to highlight the voices of dozens of tribal governments that support the monument. I urge them to stop and listen to elected tribal government leaders who speak on behalf of their people.”

The PLI passed the House committee mark-up session on Sept. 22. Inter-Tribal Coalition Co-Chair Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, condemned the rush job Bishop has employed in the closing days of the 114th Congress, adding, “This bill is absolutely ludicrous, shameful….[The PLI] will place our common cultural, air, and water resources in greater jeopardy. The Coalition cannot in good conscience stay silent on the imminent danger posed by this bill. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition stands in unified opposition to PLI.”

From November 2016. Read similar stories about .