An ancestral tribal village within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Photo: Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management

Tribes still in the dark as Trump administration moves to roll back Bears Ears

Tribal leaders continue to complain of lack of consultation as the Trump administration appears intent on rolling back the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Official details of any changes remain under wraps. President Donald Trump, as he was returning from a 12-day trip to Asia on Tuesday, offered a characteristically cryptic comment on Twitter about a "major statement" that was dutifully reposted by Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Cabinet official who has already recommended a reduction in the monument's size.

Subsequent comments from Zinke are now drawing scorn from the tribes who pushed for creation of Bears Ears in order to protect ancestral villages, burial grounds and sacred sites. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he suggested the monument was drawn too big for those purposes.

“If there’s a potential for an arrowhead over here, you should protect from Manhattan, west,” Zinke told The Tribune in a story published on Wednesday.

Though the paper said Zinke's remarks were offered "sarcastically," tribal leaders aren't happy with the leader of the Department of the Interior.

“If Secretary Zinke had really consulted with us, he would know better than to address our culture with sarcasm,” said Shaun Chapoose, a council member for the Ute Tribe, one of the members of the Bears Ears Coalition.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands of cultural sites, everything from historic Ute camps, to the graves of our ancestors, to villages, rock art, and cliff dwellings, Chapoose said on Thursday. "We’ve told him the entire monument should be left alone for the preservation of our cultural identity.”

‪Secretary Ryan Zinke discusses his recommendation to revise the Bears Ears National Monument at the National Congress of American Indians midyear conference in Connecticut. He is asking Congress to authorize tribal co-management of a portion of the monument in Utah, claiming neither the Department of the Interior nor President Donald Trump have the power to do that. Session held at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation. June 13, 2017. #NCAIMY17‬

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Secretary Zinke on Bears Ears: 'I talked to the tribes before, I talked to the tribes after'

And while the new administration isn't sharing its thoughts with tribes, a Republican ally is fanning the flames. An aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who received a call late last month from the president about Bears Ears and another monument in Utah, offered seemingly specific details on the reduction that might occur.

During an appearance before the Utah Legislature's Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands on Tuesday, staffer Ron Dean said the monument boundaries could be cut by as much as 80 percent. He cautioned that the figures were coming through the "grapevine" and that he hadn't seen anything official from the White House.

Yet that vine bore some significant fruit. "I would say with some certainty, that in regards to Bears Ears, that that monument will probably end up being somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 acres," said Dean, who serves as Hatch's director of operations in Central and Eastern Utah.

Considering that the monument covers about 1.3 million acres, such a change would be a drastic rollback. Tribal leaders believe the vast area needs protection from looters, off-road vehicle traffic and other threats.

Davis Filfred, who represents Navajo Nation communities in Utah as a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, described Bears Ears as "a cultural landscape filled with sacred sites important to all of our tribal members."

"Wouldn’t it be better to work with us to help steward these lands for the benefit of all people instead of working to threaten our sovereignty by undermining this monument?” asked Filfred.

Though Zinke visited Bears Ears in May and met with tribal leaders there, he has kept Indian Country and even his own subordinates in the dark about his plans. He sent an interim report to Trump on a Saturday in June but lower-level officials didn't find out about it until they were forced to defend its contents during a previously-scheduled listening session that took place during a major tribal conference.

“A listening session is not true tribal consultation,” Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe told Interior subordinates on June 12.

The following day, Zinke showed up to the tribe's reservation in Connecticut and made his first address to the National Congress of American Indians. Without being prompted on the topic, he defended his outreach on Bears Ears.

"I talked to the tribes," Zinke insisted. “I talked to the tribes before, I talked to the tribes after. I called all the tribes."

The department, however, declined to provide Zinke's interim report to tribes or to the public, with staff saying it was up to the White House to determine its release. Although copies were obtained by news organizations at the time, it took another month before the document was officially posted.

Subsequent actions have continued a pattern of inadequate consultation, according to tribal leaders. In late August, Zinke completed a more detailed report for Trump that he also declined to disseminate. A couple of weeks later, a blurry copy was posted by The Washington Post.

Zinke also has not acted on his pledge to seek Congressional authorization for a tribal commission that will help manage Bears Ears. Republicans in Congress advanced a monument bill last month without the administration's official input.

While Trump promised that "major statement" from the White House on an unknown topic, he also has said he will visit Utah in December.

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