Bears Ears bill hearing resumes after Democrats force more witnesses

(January 30, 2018) - A hearing on a Republican House bill to establish two new monuments in place of the scaled-back Bears Ears National Monument resumed after Democrats forced the GOP majority to schedule more witnesses — all opposed to the bill — to testify on the issue.

On Jan. 9, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, recessed the first hearing on the bill (HR 4532) after a majority of Democrats on the Federal Lands Subcommittee submitted a letter to Federal Lands Subcommittee Chairman Tom McClintock, R-Calif., asking for the hearing to continue with more witnesses selected by the minority.

"The Committee should hear from a wider range of tribally elected leaders, scientists, and other experts to examine ways we can improve the management of Bears Ears under Proclamation 9558," read the Jan. 9 letter. That Dec. 28, 2016, proclamation from President Barack Obama established the original Bears Ears National Monument designation.

The "Rule 11 letter" referenced the House rule under which it was raised, was submitted after Republicans denied Democrats' earlier request to bring more witnesses to the Jan. 9 hearing, according to a press secretary for the committee minority. The usual ratio of witnesses at hearings is three called by the majority party and one by the minority. Under House rules, panel Republicans had to comply with the Democrats' request.

At the resumed hearing Tuesday, witnesses included representatives from each of the five tribes in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that formed in 2015 to seek protections for the Bears Ears area and which oppose the legislation.

"I think this balanced approach has allowed us to correct some of the misinformation that we heard in the first hearing that still exists surrounding the level of tribal support for this bill," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif. "Tribal leaders could not be clearer: HR 4532 is not wanted."

Members of the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian Tribes each registered their opposition to the bill, introduced by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, disagreeing that it would give tribes the level of management they want over the area.

The measure would create the Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument, establish tribal management councils for both monuments and create two Archeological Resources Protection Units to preserve important sites within the designations. The Congressional Budget Office has not estimated the cost of the bill to date, and the Trump administration has yet to weigh in.

Curtis introduced his legislation after President Donald Trump reduced from 1.35 million to 202,000 acres the size of the Bears Ears monument in southeastern Utah. Under Trump's proclamation, the new boundaries are to take effect Feb. 2.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former Ute Mountain Tribe councilwoman and a former Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition co-chairwoman, testified Tuesday they were not consulted in the development of Curtis' legislation.

"The tribal management in this bill is tribal in name only," said Begaye, who told the panel the bill would weaken the level of management tribes can bring over the area because its members would be appointed by the U.S. president in consultation with Utah's congressional delegation.

"No tribe would have an input on the members appointed to the management council," unlike the existing Bears Ears Commission established under Obama's Antiquities Act designation of Bears Ears to give guidance on the monument's management, said Begaye.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said the bill's intent is to provide for actual input from tribes and asked Lopez-Whiteskunk whether adjustments would be helpful to ensure tribal input. It would be of help, she indicated, but said if Curtis had reached out to tribes earlier, "then probably some of this wouldn't be so problematic today."

Chaffetz refutes tribes

Retired Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who previously represented Curtis' district, returned to Capitol Hill Tuesday to testify on the measure. The bill, he said, provides a net improvement on the ability of tribes to relay their wishes on the area's management. "It's a huge win for the tribes and the local communities," he said.

Chafettz said Begaye had not heard of the Bears Ears area when they met in Flagstaff, Ariz., in August 2015, "nor did he have any idea where it was located."

"His concern then was about access for local Navajos, access that was not found within the monument designation," said Chaffetz.

Rebecca Benally, vice chairwoman of the San Juan County Commissioners and a Navajo tribe member, supports the legislation and said Tuesday it was environmental groups and nongovernmental organizations that "started this process of locking up the Colorado Plateau" — a 240,000-square mile area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet.

But Benally is not a Navajo Nation official, said Begaye. "Over 90 percent of Utah Navajos support the monument," he told Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Benally pointed to the inter-tribal coalition's development only in 2015, while Chaffetz and Bishop sought to establish that the coalition members were not in early talks on the future of the region.

The committee's general partisanship remained on display at the hearing's end. Democrats had announced Monday that Grijalva would circulate at the hearing a letter for panel members to sign asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to keep the mineral withdrawal of the original 1.35 million-acre designation in place. The withdrawal of that full area would also be preserved under Curtis' legislation, but the measure would first have to become law.

"Raúl, do you want me to be snarky or not?" Bishop asked his counterpart, who indicated he preferred not.

"Okay. Then I won't say anything about the letter. But I'll sign the letter as soon as you vote for his bill," Bishop said.

Through a spokeswoman after the hearing, Grijalva stated the hearing "revealed that tribes strongly oppose HR 4532" and were not consulted or considered in the development of the bill, which he said "was solely written as part of Congressional Republicans continued assault on conservation and preservation."

(2018 WL 618290)

By:  Jacqueline Toth
Source: CQ Roll Call