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Op-ed: Why I stand with Rep. Curtis' national monument legislation

Ancient ruins in the Butler Wash area of the Bears Ears National Monument are pictured on Monday, May 8, 2017.
Ancient ruins in the Butler Wash area of the Bears Ears National Monument are pictured on Monday, May 8, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Native Americans and land issues have been at the forefront of debate in Western states recently. Bears Ears National Monument was an issue that brought out many opinions on the matter — why it shouldn’t it be a monument and why it should. But one thing is certain that most can agree upon: The land should be preserved.

Why do you think so many Utah Native voices were against the Bears Ears Monument designation? Why did my chapter, the closest one to Bears Ears, pass resolutions requesting Bears Ears National Monument designation be reversed by the president himself?

For one thing, there are already 11 wilderness designations protecting the area; therefore, a monument designation isn't worth any more than the paper it was written on. Another reason is that the decision was sold as though it were a “celebrated” tribally managed monument where decisions were going to stop at the offices of each tribal chairman/president. Would the buck stop at each tribal chairman/president? No.

All one needed to do was open up the Bureau of Land Management website of the Bears Ears National Monument proclamation and see what a slap in the face it was to Native American tribes. A less-than-advisory role of each tribe was named in the monument proclamation in the form of the Bears Ears Commission. “Tribal Co-Management,” a phrase that was so adamantly pushed by special interest/environmentalist groups, was nowhere to be seen in the original Bears Ears Monument proclamation. Monument decisions were always going to remain in the hands of faceless BLM and U.S. Forest Service officials.

The less-than-advisory committee status of the “Bears Ears Commission” so far has not included much, if any, of our Native American public. Meetings are held in secret, in locations unknown, and the only meeting I was ever aware of was held off any Native American reservation in Bluff, Utah, controlled by unelected special interest groups. To this day, none of my constituents can even find a meeting agenda. How are we supposed to find confidence in that process?

Within the former Bears Ears Monument boundaries lies the reason the Forest Service was a main player in its management role: the Manti-La Sal National Forest. At 1.2 million acres, this national forest spans six Utah counties but is contained mostly in San Juan County.

Yet, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture website for the Manti-La Sal Forest, advisory roles and tribal relations are blank. Local Utah Navajos and Ute tribal members who actually use the Bears Ears lands were extremely displeased with the lack of interest from our own tribal governments. Aneth, Oljato, Red Mesa and Navajo Mountain chapters are not even mentioned in the website, either.

Am I pleased the monument was reduced? Somewhat. Am I pleased there are two efficiently sized national monuments where there was only one? I can live with that. But it’s not enough. What my Utah Navajo would like to see are lasting protections for the area. Obviously, executive presidential monuments can be modified back and forth until the end of time. The answer, the hardest, is a congressional one. Congress passes laws that are set in stone, which can stand the test of time (and presidents).

Our newest Utah congressman, John Curtis, has Utah Navajo concerns on his mind. He was just elected last month, so we are honored that his first official act as a congressman is to introduce the Shásh Jaa’ National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act, or HR 4532. The bill creates a truly Native American management body where none existed before — one the public can be involved with.

Therefore, as a duly elected official chosen by the people, I stand with the legislation of my congressman, John Curtis.

Alfred Ben is the vice president of Aneth Chapter, an LGA-certified chapter recognized as an official local unit of the Navajo Nation Government.