SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - Native Americans who have long bemoaned their lack of participation in federal land decisions scored a major victory when President Barack Obama designated a new national monument in Utah that gives five tribes an opportunity to weigh in on the management of their ancestral home.
But federal bureaucrats working under President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet appointees will still have the final say on all land decisions, and some tribal officials are concerned that the shared-management arrangement could quickly sour if the incoming administration charts a different course for the 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument.
Navajo Nation lawmaker Davis Filfred, who hopes to be on the tribal commission helping to oversee the monument, said he and others are worried, but they are trying to stay hopeful that the administration will give the commission a legitimate voice.
“Now is not the time to bash him,” Filfred said, “because I need him.”
Federal officials will also create a different advisory committee made up of local government officials, business owners and private landowners to provide recommendations. That board will probably lean heavy with people who opposed the designation over concerns about adding another layer of federal control and closing the area to new energy development, a common refrain in the battle over use of the American West's vast open spaces.
The language designating the monument creates a tribal commission composed of one elected official from each of five tribes. That arrangement falls short of the full co-management system the tribes requested, but they still considered the setup a significant improvement.
‘Important seat at the table’
“It's double, not a home run from the tribes' perspective,” said Kevin Washburn, a University of New Mexico law professor and the Obama administration's former assistant secretary for Indian affairs. “But it gives the tribes an important seat at the table.”
Obama has protected more acreage through new or expanded national monuments than any other president. But Trump is not expected to carry on that legacy. The Republican businessman has pledged to honor Theodore Roosevelt's tradition of conservation in the West but has also said he will “unleash” energy production and has railed against “faceless, nameless bureaucrats” in land-management agencies.
Utah's Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, vowed to work with the Trump administration to get the Bears Ears monument repealed.
On Thursday, state elected officials and county commissioners blasted federal officials at a protest in the small city of Monticello, Utah, declaring that the monument shows the Obama administration ignores the wishes of Utah residents.
The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service will co-manage Bears Ears. The red rock lands are home to an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, including intact ancient cliff dwellings that attract visitors from around the world.
Obama also designated the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada outside Las Vegas, protecting 300,000 acres of scenic and ecologically fragile area near where rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff with government agents in 2014. It includes rock art, artifacts, rare fossils and recently discovered dinosaur tracks.
The monument designation allows current oil and mining within the boundaries, but it bans new activity. Grazing, hiking, hunting and fishing will still be allowed.
White House officials touted the tribal commission as a first-of-its-kind setup that will ensure management decisions reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge. The commission will include one elected officer from each of the five tribes that formed a coalition to push for the monument: Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uinta Ouray.
The tribes “will help set a new standard for collaborative management at the national monument,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said. “We look forward to the day when all national monuments on native lands are collaboratively managed with tribes.”
The commission and monuments are part of a concerted push by the Obama administration to protect native lands and show respect for tribal voices, said Athan Manuel, Sierra Club director of lands protection in Washington, D.C. The Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado, designated in 2012, is another example.
“Politically, it's a great message that Native American communities are being recognized this way,” Manuel said.
Zuni councilman Carleton Bowekaty is optimistic that the commission will have a legitimate role in decisions no matter the political agenda of the White House because of specific legal language in the designation. It not only ensures that the commission cannot be scrapped but requires that the Interior and Agriculture secretaries give written explanations if they decide not to incorporate formal recommendations made by the tribal commission.
The first test will be the creation of a monument-management plan, a process that sometimes takes years to complete.
“This is more than consultation,” Bowekaty said. “We believe it's a very important step in making our voices known. This is definitely a milestone.”