Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) chairs a hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 2019. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

Trump administration defers to Congress on protections for ancestral lands

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Trump administration won't stand in the way of legislation to protect ancestral tribal territory from development despite adopting a policy of "energy dominance" on America's public lands.

In testimony to Congress on Wednesday, an official from the Department of the Interior expressed no opposition to legislation that would bar new uranium mining around Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and oil and gas drilling around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Tribes support the bills in order to protect sacred and sensitive sites within their ancestral homelands.

"As Native people, we are connected to the land and it is important to preserve sacred landscapes," Vice President Myron Lizer of Navajo Nation said at a morning hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.

But in the case of H.R.1373, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, and H.R.2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, the Trump administration's position does not mean it is backing away from its pro-energy agenda. Development of public resources, through mining, drilling or other methods, remains a top priority for Washington, Michael Nedd of the Bureau of Land Management confirmed.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Legislative Hearing - June 5, 2019

Instead, the administration is willing to let Congress call the shots when it comes to certain landscapes. Why? Because the U.S. Constitution grants the legislative body the “power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.”

"We respect Congress’s role in this regard," said Nedd, who serves as deputy director of operations at the BLM.

With respect to Chaco, Nedd also noted that newly-confirmed Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visited the area for the first time last week. After meeting with tribal leaders, he agreed to hold off on oil and gas leasing on public lands in an area where Pueblo and Navajo ancestors built communities, held ceremonies and laid their loved ones to rest.

"The Secretary also recognizes there are some places that may benefit from enhanced protection," Nedd testified of his boss. "Striking the appropriate balance for public lands use is an important mission that the department takes seriously."

"As a result, the department has no objection to H.R. 2181," Nedd said of the Chaco protection bill.

Nedd relayed a similar message on H.R.1373. Though he said the administration has concerns about the size of the proposed ban -- about 1 million acres would be off-limits to new uranium development -- he cited the same language in the U.S. Constitution about respecting Congressional authority.

Normally, showing deference would draw praise from lawmakers, especially those who are always eager to assert their constitutional powers. But a key Republican was befuddled by his own party's stance on the bill to ban new uranium mining around Grand Canyon.

"The bill has zero Republicans and is a partisan attack on my district," Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) said of the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act.

Nearly 20,000 acres of privately-owned property in his district would be removed from development if H.R.1373 becomes law, he said. Another 4,200 acres, owned by the state of Arizona for the benefit of the public school system, would also be off-limits, thus depriving "school children" of "hundreds of millions of dollars" in revenues derived from that land, he asserted.

Gosar also wondered why the Trump administration bothered to show up at all. He pointed out that the Obama-era moratorium on new uranium mining around Grand Canyon was issued in 2012 and runs for 20 years.

"It's not 2032, is it?" Gosar said.

"No, it's not," Nedd said, stating the obvious.

"What's the rush over there?" Gosar asked of Interior.

"I don't know, Congressman," Nedd responded.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States Legislative Hearing - June 5, 2019

The Trump administration's willingness to take a back seat on certain matters was on display at a second hearing Congressional hearing on Wednesday as well. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it wouldn't object to H.R.1031, the Pala Band of Mission Indians Land Transfer Act.

The bill requires the BIA to acquire about 700 acres in southern California in trust for the Pala Band of Mission Indians. The tribe bought the land in San Diego County to protect Chokla, a sacred place also known as Gregory Mountain, from development.

"This mountain, Chokla, is the home of one of the First People, the spirit Takwish," Chairman Robert Smith told the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States in the afternoon. "To prevent this desecration, Pala ended up buying approximately 700 acres of the landfill property in 2016. This was a great victory not just for Pala, but for Indian peoples throughout southern California who honor Takwish and his many homes."

The tribe could go through the land-into-trust process at the BIA in order to add property to its holdings. But the process can take years -- H.R.1031 instead requires the land around Chokla to be placed in trust within 180 days of the bill becoming law.

"The land at issue is sacred and contiguous to the Pala Band of Mission Indians’ reservation and will be managed in its natural state," Darryl LaCounte, the director of the BIA, observed at the hearing. "No development or other use of the property is considered."

Secretary Arthur LaRose of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe testifies at a hearing of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 2019. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

Another bill heard on Wednesday advances similar goals, LaCounte said. H.R.733, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act, returns nearly 12,000 acres to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

The tribe lost the land when the BIA sold allotments on the reservation in northern Minnesota despite lacking approval from all of the owners to do so. The land ended up becoming a part of the Chippewa National Forest.

"The passage of this legislation that would return 11,760 acres of land that was illegally taken from our band over 70 years ago, is critical to increase housing options and will positively impact band members of our tribe now and for generations to come," Secretary Arthur LaRose told the subcommittee.

In both instances, LaCounte said the Department of the Interior won't object to passage of the legislation

"Congress can direct the department to accept and administer lands to be held in trust. Thus the department does not take issue with Congress' decision to [proceed with] this legislation proposed in H.R.733 and H.R.1381," LaCounte said.

Frank Beum, an official from the Department of Agriculture, which oversees national forest lands, expressed "some concerns" about H.R.733. But he said his agency was committed to finding "solutions" to the matter.

"We take our responsibility to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe very seriously," Beum, who serves as the acting associate deputy chief of the National Forest System, told the subcommittee.

"The historical and legal relationship between the Band and the Chippewa National Forest is unlike any tribal-federal relationship," Beum said of the forest, whose lands are drawn from treaty territory promised to the Ojibwe people.

Chairman Tom Wooten of the Samish Nation, left, and Chairman Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community are seen at a hearing of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 2019. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

Interior's hands-off approach benefits another tribal bill, but only up to a certain point. LaCounte said the department isn't taking a position on H.R.2961, the Samish Indian Land Reaffirmation Act.

The bill merely confirms that the BIA made the right call when it placed 6.70 acres in Washington state in trust for the Samish Nation. The decision came after a cumbersome land-into-trust process that took nine years, Chairman Tom Wooten said.

"We should be able to have land taken into trust like other federally recognized tribes," Wooten testified. "This bill would help that."

LaCounte noted that a challenge to the acquisition is pending before the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, an administrative review body at the department. But he also pointed out that cutting that process short through H.R.2961 is "a decision that can only be made by Congress."

"The department neither supports nor opposes this bill," LaCounte said.

Chairman Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community confirmed that his people are behind the challenge pending at the IBIA. He said Congress should not intervene because it could prevent his tribe from having its objections fully heard through the administrative process. It would also prevent possible litigation over the land-into-trust application.

"We're not aware of any other instance in recent memory where this committee would cut off an Indian nation's right to utilize the department's long-standing appeal procedures to challenge an unlawful decision when treaty rights are stake," said Cladoosby, a past president of the National Congress of American Indians.

"Your trust responsibility to act in the best interest of the Swinomish Tribe does not allow this resolve," said Claoodsby, whose tribal community also includes some Samish descendants.

A fifth bill heard on Wednesday also drew no objections from the Trump administration. The Warm Springs Tribes are calling on Congress to pass H.R.1803 in order to nullify a "fraudulent" treaty that their ancestors were forced to sign in 1865.

"According to its terms, the treaty prohibits the Indians from leaving the Warm Springs Reservation without written permission of the government," said Ron Suppah, a former council member who testified on behalf of the tribe. "The 1865 treaty also relinquished all of the off-reservation rights so carefully negotiated by the tribes, 10 years earlier."

Ron Suppah of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs testifies at a hearing of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 2019. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

Neither the tribe, the federal government or the state of Oregon, where the reservation is located, consider the 1856 agreement to be valid. Instead, the 1855 treaty to be the legitimate government-to-government document.

"These are unreasonable restrictions on the rights of the Warm Springs people," LaCounte, the BIA director, said of the 1856 agreement that was "forced" upon the tribe. "We are aware of no other tribe that is currently subject to such a restrictive treaty."

With Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, all five bills heard on Wednesday are likely to move forward in the coming weeks and months. The Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act is sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), who wields considerable power as chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, serves as vice chair of the committee and as chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, which heard the Grand Canyon bill and the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, of which she is a co-sponsor. She has a strong interest in both measures.

"We want to protect Chaco Canyon," Haaland said at a Congressional panel on Wednesday afternoon that was held to discuss the "Broken Promises" report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "That's my ancestral homeland in New Mexico. We want to preserve it for generations to come."

"We also are working to make sure that the tribes at the bottom of the Grand Canyon don't get uranium in their water," Haaland added. "To me, those are really simple things that we should care about."

Of the bills taken up by the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act and the Warm Sprigs legislation have companion measures in the Senate, which is under Republican control.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs already advanced S.199, the Leech Lake bill, at a business meeting in January. The committee also approved S.832, the Warm Springs bill, at a business meeting last month.

The Senate version of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is S.1079. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, took testimony on the bill on May 14.

The bill is being championed by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), who serves on the committee and is a co-sponsor. He hosted Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt for the visit to Chaco last month.

House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Notice
Legislative Hearing - H.R.1373 and H.R.2181 (June 5, 2019)

House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States Notice
Legislative Hearing - H.R.733, H.R.1031, H.R,1803, and H.R.2961(June 5, 2019)

Recap: #KeepItGrand at U.S. Capitol - June 4, 2019

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