Interior secretary steps into Utah public lands tug-of-war
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Interior secretary steps into Utah public lands tug-of-war

Last Updated Apr 8, 2021 at 1:25 am ADT

FILE - This Dec. 28, 2016, file photo shows the two buttes that make up the namesake for Utah's Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will visit Utah this week before submitting a review on national monuments in the state. She's expected to submit a report to President Joe Biden after she meets with tribes and elected leaders at Bears Ears National Monument on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — For decades, a public lands tug-of-war has played out over a vast expanse of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and distinctive twin buttes bulge from a grassy valley.

A string of U.S. officials has heard from those who advocate for broadening national monuments to protect the area’s many archaeological and cultural sites, considered sacred to surrounding tribes, and those who fiercely oppose what they see as federal overreach.

On Thursday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will be the latest cabinet official to visit Bears Ears National Monument — and the first Indigenous one.

Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, is scheduled to meet with tribes and elected officials at Bears Ears before submitting a review with recommendations on whether to reverse President Donald Trump’s decision to downsize that site and Grand Staircase-Escalante, another Utah national monument.

The visit underscores her unique position as the first Native American to lead a department that has broad authority over tribal nations, as well as energy development and other uses for the country’s sprawling federal lands.

“She brings something that no other cabinet secretary has brought, which is that her Indigenous communities are coming with her in that room,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College.

Miller said the outcome of the negotiations will shed light on how the Biden administration plans to respond to other public lands disputes and will likely impact subsequent conversations with other states on natural resources.

Haaland faces competing interests: Tribes across the U.S. have hailed her confirmation as a chance to have their voices heard and their land and rights protected, while Republican leaders labeled her a “radical” who could, along with President Joe Biden, stunt oil and gas development and destroy thousands of jobs.

Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said he looks forward to Haaland seeking tribes’ input, which he called a “far cry” from her predecessors in the Trump administration.

He noted Haaland is familiar with the landscape — Bears Ears contains many sites of spiritual importance to New Mexico’s pueblos — but acknowledged she has a responsibility to hear from all sides.

“She is the interior secretary for all of us, and that also requires her to engage other groups.”

The coalition wants the monument restored to its original size, or even enlarged, but Gonzales-Rogers said he hopes Haaland’s visit will at least be a step toward a more certainty.

“All parties would like to see some permanence, and they don’t want it to vacillate between either administrations or political ideology,” he said.

Prominent Utah Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and new Gov. Spencer Cox, have expressed concern with the review under Biden’s administration and demanded state leaders be involved. Haaland is expected to meet with them, along with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and U.S. Rep. Blake Moore during her visit.

Romney said the meeting will give Haaland a chance to receive valuable input from local officials and residents.

“I’m hopeful this visit will also highlight to the Secretary the importance of working with Congress toward a permanent legislative solution for the monuments’ boundaries and management that reflects the input of Utah’s state, local and tribal leaders, rather than unilateral action,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016. The site was the first to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.

Its boundaries were downsized by 85% under the Trump administration, while Grand Staircase-Escalante was cut nearly in half. The reductions paved the way for potential coal mining, and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. Activity was limited because of market forces.

Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations are suing to restore the monuments’ original boundaries, arguing presidents don’t have legal authority to change monuments their predecessors created. On the flip side, Republicans have argued Democratic presidents misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what’s necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.

Haaland will be a key player in deciding what comes next.

She has said she will follow Biden’s agenda, not her own, on oil and gas drilling, and told reporters at a briefing last week that her report to the president will reflect conversations with people who know and understand the area.

“That starts with listening,” she said, adding she has been to Bears Ears and knows “how special it is.”

The Biden administration has said the decision to review the monuments is part of an expansive plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration’s “harmful policies.”

But Mike Noel, a former state representative and vocal critic of expanding the monuments, said it would be a mistake for the administration to “go back and rub salt in the wounds” by reversing Trump’s decision.

He said he fears that not allowing local and state officials to make these decisions will only further divide those involved.

“It’s never a good thing when decisions like this are made from Washington, D.C.,” Noel said. “I just think it’s being done wrong, and I hope that the new secretary recognizes that.”

Wilfred Herrera Jr., chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and a former governor of Laguna Pueblo, noted places like Bears Ears and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico connect tribal members to their ancestors. He said protecting them is the council’s highest duty.

“Our current challenge — this threat to our cultural survival — is epitomized by these two examples and many other areas of equal importance,” he said.

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Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this story.

Sophia Eppolito, The Associated Press


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