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Tribes Remain Unified On The Original Bears Ears; County Leader Says Locals Prefer Smaller Footprint

Judy Fahys/KUER
Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sits in the front row at a Federal Lands Subcommittee. He supports shrunken boundaries for San Juan County national monuments, while the tribal leaders oppose them.

WASHINGTON — The changes proposed for what used to be the Bears Ears National Monument continue to divide Native Americans.

The disagreement played out once again in a congressional hearing room on Tuesday, during a second hearing on a bill by U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.

Democrats on the Resources Committee requested the hearing. They have their own bill that tracks the original monument boundaries, and they wanted lawmakers to hear from leaders of the five-tribe coalition behind the original Bears Ears monument: the Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Utes, the Zuni, the Navajo and the Hopi.

They were outnumbered in a Jan. 9 hearing on Curtis' bill, which reflects with the shrunken boundaries Pres. Donald Trump declared last month. They described Trump’s move as illegal and a violation of an agreement the federal government made with their sovereign nations. The bill and Trump’s boundaries leave important places like Perfect Kiva at risk.

“The kiva is a church, much like your church,” said Hopi leader Clark Tenakhongva. “And, if it was to be removed from the protected sites, it’s just like taking our right to practice our religion.”

Rebecca Benally is a Navajo who sits on the San Juan County Commission. She does not represent her tribe’s position but told the House Federal Lands Subcommittee she reflects the position of local Native Americans who favor the Trump monument and Curtis’ bill. She described opponents of Curtis’ bill as a front for the national environmental groups.

“I believe we’ve done a great job to keep it a pristine area for decades and decades,” she testified, “until someone noticed and wanted to have deep-pocketed interests take an interest in the area for self-serving needs.”

Utah Atty. Gen. Sean Reyes and former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also testified in favor of Curtis’ bill.

Curtis, who was formally added to the Resources Committee's roster on Tuesday, says there’s still work to be done to find common ground before his bill goes up for a committee vote. 

“The single biggest challenge is that they are very mad at president Trump’s new designation,” he said after the hearing. “And they can’t separate that from my bill, and they really need to. This is a bill to move forward to do what’s right with the land independent of both President Obama’s and President Trump’s designation. And we need to get them to look past President Trump’s designation and truly look at the bill and what it does.”

While the opposing sides dig in, protections that have blocked new mining expire Friday on more than 1 million acres that Trump cut from Bears Ears in December.

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