Herbert and Utah’s Congressmen Circle the Wagons Over Bear’s Ears

Bears Ears Tribal Coalition Promotion courtesy Tim Peterson
Bears Ears Tribal Coalition Promotion courtesy Tim Peterson

Due to persistent rumours that native tribal leaders have been in final negotiations with President Barack Obama during the last few weeks of his presidency, on Thursday Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s monthly press conference was extended to include Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz. All were on hand to condemn the possible use of the Antiquities Act by President Barack Obama to protect BLM land in the state’s San Juan County as another National Monument.

Quick to condemn that kind of executive action on authority given by congress 110 years before, all three of Utah’s statesmen assembled at the press event said that Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative (PLI), introduced after months of negotiations with local stakeholders, was still their preference for protection, even though the bill has not been introduced to the (current) 114th congress which will adjourn in less than a week, resuming briefly before Inauguration Day.

Governor Herbert indicated that he had spoken with the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, on Monday, December 12, and was assured that the Beehive State’s concerns were being considered and that there was no national monument designation immediately planned by the White House. Credible rumors had resurfaced, prompting the expanded press conference at KUED studios in Salt Lake City.

Herbert stressed to reporters his preference that if BLM land needs further protection it should be done legislatively, such as using the provisions outlined and discussed in Bishop’s PLI – a draft of which was announced this past summer.

Congressman Bishop expressed his concerns that the designation was still potentially looming behind closed doors and that White House denials were a “cynical ploy.”

Bishop would go on to express his displeasure with the ability for the president to use the law and has said many times that the Antiquities Act has outlived its usefulness in twenty-first century America. “It’s the wrong way to go about meeting the needs of the local people,” he said, “everything it does has to be done in secret and in the shadows.” Bishop believes that the Antiquities Act needs drastic revision.

It is worth noting that the current Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, brought her executive staff to the San Juan County area in July to gather local sentiment and input. “The latest rumor,” Bishop said, “is that they would use the boundaries that we included (in the PLI) as justification for [the Obama Administration’s] efforts.”

Governor Herbert, noting his strong ties to the nation’s other Republican governors, provided his perspective on the use of executive powers (like the Antiquities Act). “All of a sudden we have these large and numerous designations and it’s like the next President will want to outdo the last President. President Obama has created twenty-three National Monuments already and has expanded four others,” Herbert said, “It’s not the use of the Antiquities Act that [the governors] object to, it’s the abuse of the Act that they don’t like.”

All three condemned the rumors and all ventured that the President doesn’t have the authority to include Native American management within a monument designation, a proposal that several tribes have discussed for months. Herbert asserted that the only way that native populations who desire to be included in the management could do so was through congressional action.

During the roll-out of the PLI, Bishop and Chaffetz have repeatedly said that all of the potential stakeholders who wanted to be a part of the discussions and negotiations had been included. “We held more than 1,200 meetings,” said Chaffetz, “and we met with every appreciable party,” while going on to add that if the designation were to occur by “fiat,” it would represent “the height of arrogance” on the part of the Obama administration.

Citing local endorsement and favorable reception of the PLI, Chaffetz said that only “radical environmentalists,” were among those who opposed their initiative. Emphasizing that view, Chaffetz added that “every single one” of the area’s elected representatives, including San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, a Native American herself, had registered their opposition. “It has been suggested that there are those who support the monument designation [among the Navajo people]. Not true,” he emphasized, again citing “the height of arrogance” to proceed with a “unilateral designation.”

Sounding as though a legal challenge may also be in the works if President Obama does take executive action (as was urged by some tribal representatives as early as 2014), the Utah leaders were adamant about the difference between a “land management plan,” delineated by federal employees (typically with the Bureau of Land Management) and a “monument management plan” which they insist would omit tribal participation.

Decrying the potential for a “midnight monument,” in the waning hours of the Obama presidency, Chaffetz said that a “laundry list” of benefits to the process as put forth in the PLI, including historic road definition (litigated in the recent past as RS2477 roads) and more potential for extraction industry access in addition to the protection of Native American ruins and centuries-old artifacts. The region is resource rich in minerals, uranium, and raw fossil fuels.

Speaking of land exchange agreements and economic development opportunities built-in to the PLI and a 250-mile protection for Desolation Canyon for recreational use, Chaffetz stressed further benefit for the various usage plans as outlined in their pending legislation, plans which will likely not see further action in the halls of congress until well past January.

Bishop, when asked if he felt that an incoming president could “undo” a monument designation if one were to be made before January 20th, was optimistic. “We believe [President-Elect Donald Trump] could do that and that the ‘shrinking’ of the size of a designation is also a possibility. The ability to undo one would be a precedent to be established.” When pressed further to explain why they were so concerned about rumors of a designation and the need for more promotion of the PLI, Bishop admitted that, “In the back of my mind, I fear that it may not be so easy to undo.”

Could congress simply withhold funds for a monument designated by President Obama? Bishop responded affirmatively, “If it were to be designated, we would use every tool at our disposal, which would include legislation that we would introduce… the appropriations process that would include oversight hearings… it would also include efforts to simply pass the PLI, so that we could overturn it with positive legislation.”

The delegation believes that since the presidential election on November 8, the “dynamics have changed” to be able to favor more local control and cited the president-elect’s intent to nominate Ryan Zinke of Montana as the incoming Secretary of the Interior, as an indication of that new dynamic.

During the question period, it was observed that many native proponents from the nation’s Four Corners area, not just local interests confined to Utah, were asking for the protection of the area to have a place to worship within their age-old customs and traditions.

When pressed about the cultural needs of the indigenous people of the area, Chaffetz responded by saying that, “We haven’t suggested that there be no protections, we are simply saying that there should be some balance to the effort.”

Sources close to the Obama administration indicate that the President could act as early as next week and that years worth of public input on the county, state, tribal, and federal levels will come to some fruition.

What is clear is that, sometime soon, the Bears Ears wagon train will move on, one way or another. The press conference will air locally on KUED-7 this Sunday at 5:30pm.

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