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Pueblo Nations Vow To Keep Fighting For The Protection Of Bears Ears Region

Photo of Hovenweep National Monument.
Kate Groetzinger
Hovenweep National Monument includes structures built by the ancestral Pueblo. Although these structures are protected by the national monument status, many sites built by the ancestral Pueblo in the surrounding area are not.

Updated 11:30 p.m. MDT 9/30/19

Meeting in Utah for the first time ever, the All Pueblo Council of Governors passed resolutions last week calling for the protection of the Bears Ears region and pushing back on efforts to change the form of government in San Juan County. 

The council, which speaks on behalf of the 20 Pueblo nations located in the United States, passed a resolution in support of federal legislation to restore the Bears Ears National Monument, which was reduced by 85% by President Trump in 2017, as well as resolutions opposing oil and gas leasing in the region and local and state management plans for San Juan County. 

“We are here to revisit our ancestral homeland,” said Council Chairman Edward Torres. “And to see first-hand the impacts oil and gas development has on our sacred sites.”

Torres emphasized the importance of the Bears Ears region to the modern-day Pueblo people. 

“The landscape is a part of our collective story from time immemorial,” he said. “The migration path from our place of emergence to our current homelands traverses the region of San Juan County between Bears Ears and Canyon of the Ancients and Hovenweep.” 

The council supported efforts to protect the region through the designation of a national monument or national conservation area in 2014. Now, the council is supporting federal legislation to restore Bears Ears National Monument and increase its size to 1.93 million acres, which is approximately 600,000 acres larger than the monument declared by Barack Obama in 2016. 

In a resolution, the council declared support for a bill filed this session by U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland, D-New Mexico, that confirms a national monument can only be “reduced, diminished, or revoked by an Act of Congress” and for a bill filed by U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., that would expand the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument to the 1.93 million acres proposed by a coalition of Native American tribes with ties to the region called the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Beck Touchin, from the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, expressed support for the council’s action. Touchin is part of a group called the Bears Ears Prayer Run Alliance. Members of the group traveled to Bears Ears National Monument on foot from Flagstaff Arizona in 2017 to advocate for the 1.93 million acre National Monument requested by the Inter-Tribal Coalition. 

“With [The All Pueblo Council of Governors] being behind that, that gives us more confidence with representing the Pueblo people when we do our work,” she said. “We move forward with confidence, because we have all the tribes and the Pueblos behind us now.”

The council also passed a resolution opposing oil and gas development in San Juan County between Bears Ears and Canyon of the Ancients national monuments, in response to lease sales conducted by the Bureau of Land Management this year. Torres said this resolution was needed because the BLM has failed to listen to the Pueblo tribes’ concerns about the effect drilling could have on cultural sites. 

The resolution states that the BLM has not consulted the Pueblos to determine whether the cultural landscapes in eastern San Juan County could qualify for protection and is still proposing leasing land in the area. Federal law requires federal agencies like the BLM to consult with Tribal governments when developing land use plans for culturally sensitive areas.

The resolution also states that the BLM has ignored comments submitted by the council and Pueblos regarding the areas to be leased for energy development in San Juan County, making no modifications to any parcels based on their concerns.

The council also passed a resolution requesting the State of Utah and San Juan County revise their land management plans to include input from the Pueblo tribes. In 2015, the Utah Legislature passed a bill declaring parts of San Juan County an “Energy Zone,” prioritizing it for oil and gas development. The resolution states this was done without consulting the Pueblo tribes. 

The resolution also requests that San Juan County rescind and revise its General Plan, which was adopted in 2017. Commissioner Bruce Adams says that the county worked with many ground to develop the plan, and that the plan was expensive and took years to develop. 

“If the Pueblo feel like they were not represented and involved, I'm sure the county would be open to some suggestions for addendums to the plan, but I’d be reluctant to throw the plan in the trash and start over again,” he said. 

The resolution also stated the council opposes “efforts to segregate San Juan County,” in reference to an upcoming referendum regarding the county’s form of government. In November, voters in San Juan County will be asked whether they support the establishment of a committee to study the county’s government and suggest a change, which could be voted on as early as next year. 

San Juan County’s current commission includes two Democrats and one Republican, and has a Navajo majority. After coming into power, Navajo commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy voted to reverse the county’s position on Bears Ears National Monument, which the county had previously opposed. The effort to change the county’s form of government has been characterized as “racist” in recent weeks. 

Following the council meeting, which took place Thursday, the Pueblo governors toured the Bears Ears region by plane to see the cultural resources scattered throughout the unprotected landscape. Torres, who is from the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico, said that although he has been to San Juan County before, the experience of seeing his tribe’s ancestral home from the air was “amazing.”

“This meeting proves that the Pueblos are concerned with Bears Ears National Monument, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to protect it,” he said.

KUER has contacted the BLM and will update if the agency responds.

Clarification 11:30 p.m. 9/30/19: This story has been updated to clarify that it was the first meeting of the All Pueblo Council of Governors to be held in Utah.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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