SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – For decades, tug of war on public lands has unfolded over a vast expanse of southern Utah where red rocks reveal distinctive petroglyphs and twin mounds that grow in a grassy valley.
A series of US officials have heard from those who advocate for the expansion of national monuments to protect the region’s many archaeological and cultural sites, considered sacred by surrounding tribes, and those who fiercely oppose them. consider federal in scope.
Home Secretary Deb Haaland will be the last cabinet official to visit the Bears Ears National Monument on Thursday – and the first native.
Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, is to meet with tribes and elected officials at Bears Ears before submitting a review with recommendations on whether to overturn President Donald Trump’s decision to downsize this site and of Grand Staircase-Escalante, another Utah national. monument.
The visit underscores his 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 of the country’s vast federal lands.
“She brings something that no other cabinet secretary has brought, which is that her indigenous communities come with her to this room,” said Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College.
Miller said the outcome of the negotiations would shed light on how the Biden administration plans to respond to other disputes over public lands and will likely impact subsequent conversations with other states over natural resources.
Haaland faces competing interests: Tribes across the United States hailed her confirmation as a chance to make their voices heard and protect their lands and rights, while Republican leaders called her “radical” who might , with President Joe Biden, stranding oil and gas. development and destroy thousands of jobs.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said he looked forward to Haaland soliciting input from tribes, which he called “a far cry” from his predecessors in the Trump administration. .
He noted that Haaland was familiar with the landscape – Bears Ears contains many sites of spiritual significance to the pueblos of New Mexico – but acknowledged that she had a responsibility to hear from all sides.
“She’s the Home Secretary for all of us, and that forces her to involve other groups as well.”
The coalition wants the monument restored to its original size, if not enlarged, but Gonzales-Rogers has said he hopes Haaland’s visit will at least be a step towards greater certainty.
“All parties would like to see some permanence, and they don’t want it to oscillate between administrations or political ideology,” he said.
Prominent Utah Republicans, including US Senator Mitt Romney and incoming Governor Spencer Cox, have expressed concern over the review under Biden’s administration and demanded that heads of state be involved. Haaland is expected to meet with them, as well as Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson and U.S. Representative Blake Moore during his visit.
Romney said the meeting would give Haaland a chance to receive valuable information from local officials and residents.
“I hope this visit will also underscore to the Secretary the importance of working with Congress towards a permanent legislative solution to the boundaries and management of monuments that reflect the contribution of the State of Utah, Chiefs local and tribal, 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 the tribes.
Its limits were cut by 85% under the Trump administration, while Grand Staircase-Escalante was cut almost in half. The cuts have paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on previously off-limits land. Activity was limited due to market forces.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations are trying to restore the original boundaries of monuments, arguing that presidents do not have the legal authority to alter monuments created by their predecessors. On the other hand, Republicans have argued that Democratic presidents abused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what is necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.
Haaland will be a key player in deciding what to do next.
She said she would follow Biden’s agenda, not hers, on oil and gas drilling, and told reporters at a briefing last week that her report to the president would reflect conversations with people who know and understand the region.
“It starts with listening,” she said, adding that she had been to Bears Ears and knew “how special it is.”
The Biden administration said the decision to revise the monuments was part of a larger plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration’s “nefarious policies”.
But Mike Noel, a former state official and vocal critic of the monument expansion, said it would be a mistake for the administration to “go back and rub the salt in the wounds” by undoing Trump’s decision.
He said he feared 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 in Washington, DC,” Noel said. “I just think it’s done poorly, and I hope the new secretary recognizes it.
Wilfred Herrera Jr., president of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and former governor of Laguna Pueblo, noted that places like Bears Ears and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico connect tribal members to their ancestors. He said protecting them was the highest duty of the council.
“Our current challenge – this threat to our cultural survival – is embodied in these two examples and many other areas of equal importance,” he said.
Eppolito is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on secret issues. Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this story.