“The truth will prevail — and we are the truth,” said Alastair LeeBitsóí, communications director for the Utah Diné Bikéyah, the nonprofit group that represents five Indigenous tribes who have partnered to protect an area of public lands known as Bears Ears National Monument.
Bitsóí was discussing the member appointments to the Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee (BENM MAC), which were confirmed on April 11. The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for June 5 and 6 in Monticello.
Utah Diné Bikéyah does not feel that Native American tribes are being adequately represented on the new committee. The organization also points out that many members of the committee were outspoken opponents of the establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument early on in the process, while early advocates of the monument are absent on the committee.
“Not a single early proponent of the monument made the cut, despite the Bears Ears proclamation stating that this advisory committee “shall consist of a fair and balanced representation of interested stakeholders,’” said Bitsóí in an April 23 press release, referencing the original Bears Ears National Monument presidential proclamation of 2016.
The committee has been established in accordance with that proclamation.
It is comprised of fifteen members, each chosen to represent an area of local interest or relevant expertise. Those categories include a local elected official and a representative of the state government, experts in paleontology and archaeology, members representing grazing, conservation, and developed and dispersed recreation, private landowners and local business owners, as well as the public at-large.
There are also two slots for “tribal concerns,” now filled by Alfred Ben and Ryan Benally.
Benally is the son of former San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who vocally opposed the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). Ryan Benally has also opposed the designation. Ben is the vice president of the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, and has also opposed the establishment of BENM, expressing doubt that Native Americans would be given substantial input in the management of such a designation. Neither Ben nor Benally was one of seven nominees submitted by the Utah Diné Bikéyah to fill positions on the committee.
Bitsóí said that the category of “tribal concerns” itself does not give adequate representation to Native Americans invested in the Bears Ears region.
“The term ‘tribal concerns’ is offensive to the political sovereign status of tribes of the Bears Ears region,” he said. Instead Bitsóí said there should have been seats reserved for representatives of the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, to appropriately acknowledge the legal and political status of each of those entities, and their ancestral ties to and investment in the Bears Ears region.
Nominees for the committee were solicited in August of last year.
Parts of the Bears Ears region are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Lisa Bryant, the BLM’s Canyon Country District spokesperson, said that 58 nominations were received. The Secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt, reviewed all nomination packages, as well as recommendations sent by the BLM and by the Utah Governor’s Office. Bernhardt confirmed the appointees on the same day he was confirmed by Congress to be the Interior Secretary and moved into the position from his previous job as Deputy Interior Secretary.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says it takes tribal input on the monument seriously.
“The BLM recognizes the importance of tribal engagement for managing resources within Bears Ears National Monument and is continuing to reach out to tribes through government-to-government relations to ensure that traditional and historical knowledge is incorporated into monument management,” Bryant said.
The BLM has been working in a government-to-government capacity with representatives from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group formed among the five Native American tribes in the region, to support the establishment of BENM.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition issued a statement rejecting the advisory committee appointments. The group stated that the current boundaries of the BENM units, which are a reduction from the original designation, were created through an “illegal action,” and reiterated their stance that the appointments should have waited until the ongoing federal legal battle over the designation has been settled.
Kimberly Finch is the spokesperson for the BLM-Utah office and expressed optimism for the advisory committee in this statement:
“The individuals appointed to the Bears Ears National Monument Advisory Committee reflect a wide variety expertise, experiences, and interests regarding public land management and the resources within the Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). The appointed advisory committee members will work together to provide their unique perspectives and inform the monument planning efforts and, as appropriate, the management of the monument.”
Other committee members include San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, who has opposed BENM, as the elected local official; and Kelly Pehrson and Jami Bayles as the members representing the public at-large. Pehrson was, until recently, the San Juan County Administrator. He resigned in April under tense circumstances, telling one media outlet in Utah that the new commission is not cooperative with county staff, while San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy said Pehrson did not perform his job duties to comply with commission-approved resolutions. Adams and Bayles have expressed opposition to the monument, as have Zeb Dalton and Gail Johnson, representatives for private land ownership and livestock grazing, respectively.
Bitsóí said the members of Utah Diné Bikéyah hope that even though the new members of the advisory committee were against the establishment of the Bears Ears Monument, they will still do a faithful job in their role of aiding in its management.
“But then again, they were against the whole proposal in the first place … it’s not encouraging to see entirely anti-Bears Ears folks on the MAC (Monument Advisory Committee),” he said. “It could be their agenda to dismantle everything. But we’re still going to keep our fight and our mission, which is healing our people through land management practices from a Native American perspective.”
Utah Diné Bikéyah disappointed with selections
“It’s not encouraging to see entirely anti-Bears Ears folks on the MAC [Monument Advisory Committee]. It could be their agenda to dismantle everything.”