The Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Photo: John Fowler

Secretary Zinke goes against tribal interests with monument recommendations

Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior is urging President Donald Trump to reduce the boundaries of monuments supported by tribes, according to a copy of a previously secret memo that has been published by The Washington Post.

Zinke finalized the memo on August 24 as he congratulated himself and the president for soliciting the "first-ever" public comments about 27 particular monuments. Yet he declined to release the document to tribes or the public even though it recommends a reduction to Bears Ears National Monument, whose designation last December has been widely supported in Indian Country.

“I support Bears Ears and its designation should remain as is, with no decrease in size,” President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation said earlier this month after meeting with the governor of Utah, who is among the non-Indian politicians in the state who have criticized the monument.

“Our goal is to protect all sacred sites within the area," Begaye added.

But Bears Ears isn't the only instance in which Zinke is going against Indian Country's interests. According to the memo, he also urged Trump to change the boundaries of the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada even though it's supported by Paiute tribes in the state.

"The significance of Gold Butte to Southern Paiutes cannot be understated. From time immemorial, my ancestors have traveled across this stretch of desert, learning and coexisting with the land," Chairman Darren Daboda of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians wrote in a January 15 column in The Las Vegas Sun, a couple of weeks after its designation. "To us, the Gold Butte area is a sacred site."

A third monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, is also on the chopping block, according to the memo. The property, designated in 1996, protects ancestral tribal villages, burial grounds and sacred sites.

"Our ancestors ... left their mark upon the land through their rock art, settlements, pottery shards, and sacred sites; they are buried in the canyons and plateaus of Grand Staircase," Wilfred Numkena of the Hopi Tribe said in Heart of the Desert Wild, a book about the monument.

According to the memo, Zinke has not recommended changes in the boundaries to two monuments in New Mexico that tribes have supported. But he says Trump should modify the designations for Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte to recognize "tribal cultural use" even though former president Barack Obama already did so when he took action during his tenure.

And when it comes to Bears Ears, Gold Butte, Organ Mountains and Rio Grande del Norte, Zinke is calling on the Trump administration to support legislation to authorize "tribal comanagement of designated cultural areas" within those monuments. In June, he told tribal leaders that only Congress -- not the president -- can exercise that power.

When asked back in August why Zinke did not release the memo to tribes or the public, Interior said it would be up to the White House to do so. The pages in the document appear to be stamped "Draft Deliberative -- Not for Distribution."

“The Trump administration does not comment on leaked documents, especially internal drafts which are still under review by the president and relevant agencies," the White House said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal, which also reported on the contents of the memo.

Read More on the Story:
Shrink at least 4 national monuments and modify a half-dozen others, Zinke tells Trump (The Washington Post September 17, 2017)
Interior Report Recommends Cuts or Changes to Seven National Land Monuments (The Wall Street Journal September 17, 2017)
Environmental and outdoor groups vow to fight national monument reductions (The Washington Post September 18, 2017)
Interior chief urges shrinking 4 national monuments in West (The Associated Press September 18, 2017)

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