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Curtis' monument bill earns praise, criticism

SALT LAKE CITY — Tribal leaders, politicians and lobbyists sharply disagreed during a congressional hearing Tuesday over a proposed management plan for two newly declared national monuments in southeastern Utah.

In his bill attempting to put into law President Donald Trump's order breaking the Bears Ears National Monument into two significantly smaller areas, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, proposes to give Native American tribes a management role.

Suzette Morris, a Ute Mountain Ute, told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands that the legislation give local tribes a voice.

"Our voices have been silenced by special interest groups funded by Hollywood actors, San Francisco boardrooms and by tribes who do not live anywhere near Bears Ears," said Morris, vice president of Stewards of San Juan County. "Even the leaders of my own tribe in Colorado probably don’t even know where Bears Ears is."

But Shaun Chapoose, an elected member of the Utah Indian Tribe Business Committee, said the bill disregards tribal sovereignty and hearkens back to the 1800s when the United States would cherry-pick tribal members to negotiate with to pursue its objectives.

"The politics are clear. Not a single sovereign tribe was consulted in this bill," he told the committee.

At a rally that same morning at the Utah Capitol, Virgil Johnson told a passionate crowd of flag-waving supporters that the legislation removes any opportunity for Native American tribes to have a voice.

"Those who are now making decisions are doing so without consultation with the tribes."

Curtis' bill would create the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments. It calls for the president, in consultation with Utah's congressional delegation, to appoint a management council made up of local government and tribal leaders.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said unlike former President Barack Obama's proclamation creating Bears Ears, Curtis' legislation would empower people with ancestral ties to the land to make real, not "mock" decisions. He said that could only happen with legislation approved by Congress.

Chapoose said the most "shameful" aspect of the bill is that it doesn't allow the tribes to decide who would serve on the council.

"It is not up to the United States or Congress to select who will represent our tribes," he said.

Curtis said he would be willing to amend the bill to give the tribes that make up the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition — Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute — more say.

Johnson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, also complained that the name Shash Jaa — a Navajo name — is an attempt to divide the tribes.

Gov. Gary Herbert told the committee that he supported Trump's directive to shrink Bears Ears.

"But whether or not you agree, we now find ourselves with a reset and the opportunity to move forward with a legislative process for protecting this area," he said.

Herbert applauded the "innovative" approach to managing the monuments. Local control, he said, is more reflective of people's needs and wishes for the land.

Curtis’ bill helps protect the antiquities in the area while also including those most impacted by land management decisions in the stewardship of these lands, including Native American tribes, he said.

"If we really believe these are sacred lands to Native Americans we absolutely should give them some co-management capabilities to preserve and protect what they think is sacred," Herbert said.

The legislation creates an Archaeological Resources Protection Unit and assigns at least 10 law enforcement officers for each monument. It also maintains the existing 1.35 million-acre mineral withdrawal under Obama's Bears Ears designation.

"The bill is about protecting areas, not opening mining or oil and gas development," Curtis said.

But Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, asserted Curtis' bill would leave the area vulnerable to destructive off-road vehicle use — one of the primary threats to rare antiquities.

"This is a despicable act that rolls back protections for the Bears Ears monument," he said.

Herbert said he believes everyone wants to protect the antiquities in the area but the question is how and through what means.

In a teleconference afterward, Herbert recited a litany of federal laws on the books that continue to afford protection to the area — protections he says will be amplified through passage of Curtis' bill.

"The motivation for everyone should be let's resolve the problem," he said.