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Lopez-Whiteskunk: Washing away gains of Bears Ears

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk

When President Obama designated Bears Ears in Southeastern Utah a national monument last year, it represented a major breakthrough for Native American tribes.

A movement and vision conceived by a grass-roots group of Native Americans started the collection of traditional and scientific knowledge of the region validating the importance and relationship of all to the land.

The designation not only promised to protect the site’s breathtaking beauty and precious ecosystem, it also reassured us that the enormous historical and spiritual connection my tribe and others have to this land would be preserved for all time. And, importantly, it was the culmination of a rare process giving Native Americans a true seat at the decision-making table.

Today, only about nine months after Bears Ears became a national monument, there’s a strong possibility that all the gains it brought will wash away. There were reports this week that Bears Ears is one of the national monuments that will lose much of its protections based on President Trump’s executive order this year to “review” its status. These reversals could leave our irreplaceable heritage there endangered and vulnerable – maybe even more so than before its designation.

Moreover, Native American tribes are already being shut out of decision-making about public lands that are sacred and essential to our identities and way of life.

That’s why The Wilderness Society, in its just-released report called “Too Wild To Drill,” has included Bears Ears on a list of the 15 places that are “too important, too special and too valuable to be destroyed for short-lived commercial gains.” The Trump administration, with strong support from Congressional leaders, has made no secret of its intention to put many of America’s most beloved and wildest places at risk by allowing drilling, mining and other development that will irrevocably spoil them forever.

There’s no dispute that Bears Ears belongs on this list. We have yet to learn the specific parameters of the Department of the Interior’s plans for Bears Ears after its opaque and hastily conducted “review.” But there’s widespread speculation and worry that it will call for stripping monument protection from as much as 90 percent of its current protected area.

My Ute Mountain Ute tribe has trust lands and waters within the federal footprint of the Bears Ears National Monument. But the current administration might very well allow areas around our trust land to be leased for mineral mining and oil and gas extraction. That could subject our trust lands to nearby pollution and shrinking wildlife habitats.

How is such a humiliating and invasive arrangement possible? Only when decision-making processes ignore the concerns, dignity and humanity of a people. That, in a nutshell, describes the long, painful history of tribal nations’ relationship with the U.S. government.

For several years leading up to the designation of Bears Ears region, the U.S. government listened to and worked cooperatively with the Bear Ears Intertribal Coalition, a group of five tribes (the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ute Indian Tribe of Utah, the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni) that have a deep and historic stake in that land.

Since the start of the current Administration, that spirit of respect and cooperation has quickly evaporated. Secretary Ryan Zinke, has kept us – and a large number of others who advocate for sensible protection of federal public lands – at bay. When Zinke visited Utah a few months ago, he granted the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition a one-hour meeting in Salt Lake City, after rebuffing them during earlier trips to Washington, D.C., where he has met regularly with energy industry representatives.

Never mind that energy companies already have more leases than they can apparently use. Of the 27 million acres currently under lease to oil and gas companies – an area about the size of Tennessee – more than half are sitting idle. And the coal industry currently has 20 years of reserves under lease on public lands.

When he visited Bears Ears, Zinke toured with anti-monument advocates, some Native Americans. As with the large numbers of energy industry representatives he has enthusiastically engaged with since he took office, Zinke heard only the voices he wanted to hear.

We worry that the Trump administration will present us – and the millions of Americans who view our wildest, most pristine lands as precious national treasures – with a done deal at Bears Ears that we cannot live with. We all deserve a process that is open and sensitive to the special character of these places. All Americans and our future generations are counting on us to do this right now. That means you, me and those from all four sacred directions.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is the former tribal leader for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and former co-chairwoman of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition.

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