Utah Native Americans react to restoration of Utah national monuments

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It’s official. President Joe Biden is set to restore Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to their original boundaries on Friday. 

The boundaries were first implemented under President Clinton and Obama administrations. The move is upsetting many of Utah’s elected leaders, but Native Americans who spoke with ABC4 say they are happy government officials are honoring their promises to local tribes. 

“Like a big sigh of relief, that’s how I feel right now, says Davina Smith who is the National Parks Conservation Association Tribal Coordinator and Consultant.

Smith is a part of the Diné Tribe, which is also known as the Navajo tribe. She says Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante is a home for her tribe as well as the Hopi, Pueblo, Ute, and Zuni tribes. 

“That’s the one concept that we forget is that before these states were established, we never had lines, and those lines created divisions, but for indigenous people, we never saw that, and to this day we don’t see that,” says Smith. 

On Thursday, Utah’s Congressional Delegation issued a joint statement:

President Biden is delivering a devastating blow to the ongoing efforts by our delegation, along with state, local, and tribal leaders, to find a permanent, legislative solution to resolve the longstanding dispute over the boundaries and management of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Rather than take the opportunity to build unity in a divided region and bring resources and lasting protections to sacred antiquities by seeking a mutually beneficial and permanent legislative solution, President Biden fanned the flames of controversy and ignored input from the communities closest to these monuments. We will continue to support efforts to ensure that our monuments’ boundaries and management reflect the unique stakeholder interest and uses in the area, but today’s “winner take all” mentality moved us further away from that goal.

In another statement, Utah’s State leaders Gov. Cox, Lt. Governor Henderson, Attorney General Reyes, President Adams, and Speaker Wilson state:

We learned this afternoon from Secretary Haaland that President Biden will soon be announcing the restoration of both Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.

President Biden’s decision to expand the monuments is disappointing, though not surprising. For the past 10 months, we have consistently offered to work with the Biden Administration on a permanent, legislative solution, one that would end the perpetual enlarging and shrinking of these monuments and bring certainty to their management. Our goal has been to make lasting progress on managing our public lands for the benefit of all those who use them, particularly those who live on and near those lands. 

We expected and hoped for closer collaboration between our state and national leaders, especially on matters that directly impact Utah and our citizens. The president’s decision to enlarge the monuments again is a tragic missed opportunity—it fails to provide certainty as well as the funding for law enforcement, research, and other protections which the monuments need and which only Congressional action can offer. 

As Chief Justice Roberts noted earlier this year, the purpose of the Antiquities Act is to protect the “smallest area compatible with the care and management” of significant archeological or historical objects to be protected. We agree and will consider all available legal options to that end.

We are equally disappointed that the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters will be moving from Colorado to Washington, D.C. – thousands of miles away from over 90 percent of the country’s federally-owned and managed lands. Locating the BLM away from the nation’s capital and near the lands managed brought a valuable new perspective to the BLM and should have served as a model for other federal departments. 

These decisions clearly demonstrate the administration’s unwillingness to collaborate with and listen to those most impacted by their decisions. We remain hopeful that a long-term solution will be reached in the future and that the exhausting policy instability over Utah’s public land can come to an end.

Utah League of Native American Voters Co-Founder James Singer responds to Utah’s elected leaders with, “This is justice. Tribal people have long trying to preserve and protect sacred land. That’s what this is all about.”

Singer believes this political fight comes down to mining rights instead of unity. 

“It’s terrible if we have to go somewhere, and then right next to us is some mining operation that completely ruins everything,” he says. “For us, we are intimately tied to the land. Our spirits are there, our ancestors are there, and since we’ve had these settler – Indian relations, there has been nothing but take, take, take, and destroy, destroy, and destroy without giving proper respect to each other.”

For Smith, the ruins came when her family began dying from working in one of the mines.

“As we’ve been waiting for hundreds of years patiently to have those conversations, which never happened, now is that time to move forward as we have never had that capability or we’ve never had that support in conversations,” she says. “We would love to have those conversations because that is why we felt this area, Bears Ears needed to be protected from that so we wouldn’t have to endure or be encountered with those again.”

Native Americans who spoke with ABC4 say to unify all of the parties, Utah tribes should have a cabinet position in the governor’s office for a direct line of communication. 

” To show that you are really serious in wanting to advocate and bring unity to these communities, it’s not just some random selective visit and say ‘ok we get where you’re coming from, what you’re talking about.’ No, it has to be consistent,” says Smith.

Singer adds, “Some of our local leaders that have tried to jump in front of this and say you know this is a missed opportunity, we don’t like the power that is being exercised by the president, even though four years earlier it was exercised by a president and they were totally fine with it. It just seems like political theater.”

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