Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) takes part in a tour of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, on April 14, 2019. Legislation to protect the region around the park from development has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo by Monica Sanchez / Natural Resources Democrats

Tribes cheer passage of bills to protect ancestral lands from development

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Democrats on Capitol Hill are vowing to secure permanent protections for ancestral tribal territory after winning initial passage of legislation to stop energy development on sacred lands in two states.

But lawmakers from Arizona and New Mexico are facing an uphill battle in a deeply divided Congress. Only 9 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill to halt uranium mining around Grand Canyon National Park while a measure to block oil and gas drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park did a little better, with 17 members of the GOP supporting it.

Going forward, the lopsided numbers mean it will be more difficult to make the case for the H.R.1373, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, and for H.R.2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act. The Republicans who control the U.S. Senate have been reluctant to bring up bills that they believe lack significant support from their party.

"I had to remind my colleagues that there are some things that worth more than money," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, said on Thursday after the vote.

"Protecting Chaco should not be a partisan issue," Haaland, whose Pueblo of Laguna is among the tribes with deep ties to the region, asserted as she and fellow Democrats promised to see H.R.2181 to final passage in the 116th Congress.

During debate on the House floor on Wednesday, Republicans raised a series of substantive objections to both bills Democrats were able to defeat the efforts due to their majority hold on the chamber.

But a key Republican boiled the matter down to a partisan reality. During debate on the Grand Canyon bill, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), whose district is partly affected the ban on uranium mining, simply said "it will die in the Senate."

The prediction comes with some heavy weight. On Monday, as lawmakers were teeing up both bills for passage, the White House issued a big warning in President Donald Trump's name.

"If H.R.1373 were presented to the President, his advisors would recommend that he veto it," the statement of administration policy read.

The strong stance comes as somewhat of a surprise. During a hearing on both measures in June, an official from the Department of the Interior, which oversees the lands around Grand Canyon and Chaco, said the Trump administration respected the authority of Congress to determine the policy for such lands.

The White House has not issued similar statement with respect to the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who visited the region in May, has heard directly from tribal leaders about the need to protect the region from oil and gas development.

Though Bernhardt agreed to hold off on future lease sales pending a cultural study of Chaco, Democrats aren't going to risk a change in heart from Washington, D.C.

"We must act," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who is retiring at the end of the current session, said on Thursday.

"The momentum is on our side," added Udall, who also serves as the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Tribes with connections to the Grand Canyon and to Chaco have expressed strong support for the legislation.

"This support sends a strong message that it is important to protect the Grand Canyon," said Carletta Tilousi, a council member from the Havasupai Tribe, whose reservation is located at the bottom of one of Arizona's most treasured and most popular resources. "Not only for the Havasupai people, but for all people, for all generations."

The Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation and all of the Pueblo tribes support the ban on development around Chaco in neighboring New Mexico. It's where their ancestors built communities and laid their loved ones to rest and where their people continue to make pilgrimages and hold ceremonies.

“Today’s vote is a significant step forward, but we remain steadfast in our support for passage by the full Senate and eventually President Trump,” Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation said on Wednesday after the vote.

The Chaco bill, however, has drawn opposition from some corners of the Navajo Nation. Though H.R.2181 does not bar development on Indian allotments, some Navajo landowners believe it will hurt their pocketbooks because they say oil and gas companies won't be able to access their properties due to the ban on the federal properties.

The Huerfano Chapter and the Nageezi Chapter, which are local forms of government on the Navajo Nation, have each passed resolutions in support of the landowners who oppose the bill in its current form. Republicans seized on the actions as proof of H.R.2181's unsuitability.

"This bill has the potential of disrupting 20,000 Native Americans -- almost all Navajo -- who are allottees in this particular area," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who is the top Republican on the House Committee on Natural Resources, the legislative panel with jurisdiction over most Indian Country and most public lands legislation.

From left, Chaco Culture National Historical Park Superintendent Denise Robertson, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation take part in a tour of the federal site in New Mexico on May 28, 2019. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Bishop was among the 183 Republicans who voted against H.R.1373, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, on Wednesday. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, an Independent who recently left the GOP, and Rep. Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana, also voted against the bill, as did Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

A total of 227 Democrats and 9 Republicans, including Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, voted in favor of H.R.1373. The final roll call was 236 for, 185 against.

The roll call on H.R.2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, was 245 for, 174 against. No Democrats voted against the measure; 17 Republicans voted for it. Cole was among those in favor of the bill. Mullin was among those against it.

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