Gov. Gary Herbert said this week that it would take an act of Congress to heal the deep divisions that have arisen as a result of the designation of Bears Ears as a national monument.
He wasn’t speaking proverbially, either. Quite the contrary.
In front of a Congressional committee on Tuesday, and to reporters afterward, Herbert was emphatic that Congress, not the president’s desk alone, was the appropriate place for making land designations such as the national monument formerly known as Bears Ears.
“This is a controversial topic, and there are people on both sides with strong feelings,” the governor began. Everyone wants to protect public land, he said, “The question is how, and through what means.”
Herbert was one of several people Tuesday who testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands regarding legislation proposed by Utah 3rd District Rep. John Curtis, HR 4532, or the “Shash Jaa and Indian Creek National Monument Act.”
The bill would retain President Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears into the two, much smaller monuments, but it would prohibit mining and oil-and-gas exploration throughout all of the 1.35 million acres in President Obama’s original proclamation.
It would also create, in the bill’s language, “the first tribally managed national monument.”
It would put all of those things into law, less easily reversed than were the “whims of each presidential administration,” as put by another speaker, Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West.
Because the Obama proclamation that created Bears Ears National Monument — and later the Trump proclamation that slashed Bears Ears and created the much smaller Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments — had exasperated the traditionally bitter fight between opponents in public-lands issues, Herbert said only one solution could offer hope of healing balm.
“We have a tendency to blame, to point fingers,” Herbert said, following tense exchanges and displays of that very kind of finger-pointing during the hearing. “If we really care about solving the problem, or are we going to continue to fight and argue? It needs to be done legislatively.”
The bill would create “management councils” with decision-making authority. The decisions they would make would direct the Bureau of Land Management in its stewardship of the Shash Jaa and Indian Creek national monuments.
Native Americans residing in San Juan County would fill a majority of each council’s positions. Members would be presidential appointees. That fact exposed a division between two traditionally conservative-touted ideals: local versus federal governance, and bottom-up versus top-down decision-making.
While the local management council would make management and land-use decisions for the monuments, those spots would be filled from the topmost of the top.
Herbert was tepid on the latter.
Shaun Chapoose, a Ute tribal leader from Fort Duchesne and a member of the Bears Ears Commission, was anything but tepid. Chapoose saw in the bill a reflection of U.S. government double-dealing with Indians in decades past, when the government would “cherry-pick the tribal members it wanted to negotiate with,” he said.
“The bill pours salt on a wound caused by [President Trump’s] actions,” Chapoose said.
Chapoose was the only tribal leader invited to speak against the bill — versus four other people, including another Native American who all supported it.
While Herbert didn’t say as much, something may have resonated with him. He said he envisioned the management council as having real authority, “And not a rubber stamp for some opposition point of view,” Herbert said to reporters.
If the presidential-appointment issue got in the way of appointing the right people, “We ought to see if there’s a way to modify the legislation,” he said. “I woould expect there may be some way around that. … If only the president can appoint, let’s make sure that who he appoints represents us.”
It indeed resonated with Curtis, the bill’s sponsor, who said he would consider a “friendly amendment” to give the Bears Ears Commission more input. (That commission, consisting of elected leaders from five sovereign tribes, was created as an advisory body in President Obama’s original proclamation).
“Because [management council] has decision-making authority, the Constitution actually requires that to be selected by the president,” Curtis said. “I certainly entertain any opportunity to insert more input from the Bears Ears commission in this, that would give them the representation they’re looking for.”