Biden Administration Expected To Reverse Course On Public Lands Policy

By Ron Dungan
Published: Monday, January 18, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 11:32am

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Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Ron Dungan
Rock art in the Bears Ears area of southern Utah would receive greater protection with national monument status.

Southern Utah is tangled in red hills and canyons. A few highways snake through the region where the Hopi and other tribes once made their home, and as you drive through, you may notice a couple of buttes that stick up. Like bears' ears. They’re a landmark in a place known for its remote spaces, for its red sunsets and archeological artifacts. But those artifacts are vanishing. 

“Over the years, there’s been a lot of vandalism, a lot of looting of the artifacts that were in those pristine areas," said Clark Tenakhongva, Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe. The ruins and artifacts are protected under antiquities laws, but most of the lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that critics say is underfunded. The looting has been going on for decades.

“I would say about 15 years ago people were actually going in there with aircraft, with choppers and so forth,”  Tenakhongva said.

More than a century of pot hunting has taken its toll, and there’s not much left.

Ron Dungan
Bears Ears National Monument was created to protect Pueblo ruins and rock art.

Among the items taken were “pottery and human remains,” Tenakhongva said.

So a group of tribes and conservationists lobbied for national monument status. The premise is that monuments get more funding, which means better law enforcement. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama bundled various lands in the area and created Bears Ears National Monument. But President Donald Trump reduced the size of the monument, as well as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, also in southern Utah.

“Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears are really managed now more by Google than by the federal agencies," said Tim Peterson, of the Grand Canyon Trust. "Folks will Google sites they’ve heard of or places they want to visit and use that as direction.”

Peterson says that Biden could use the Antiquities Act to recreate the monument, but conservationists have filed suit against the Trump reduction, and that could complicate matters.

Deb Haaland
U.S. House of Representatives
Deb Haaland

Biden showed his support for both public lands and tribal voices when he appointed Deb Haaland as his Secretary of the Interior. She’s the first American Indian to be appointed to the post. The congresswoman is a member of Laguna Pueblo, and likes to say she’s a 35th generation resident of New Mexico.

“It was a really inspired choice in Deb Haaland to lead Interior," Peterson said. "Indigenous leadership there is so long overdue. It’s long overdue in any presidential cabinet, but I think this one really demonstrates a commitment to positive change for indigenous issues and for public lands issues as well. She’s really been a champion for both.” 

Bears Ears is not the only place where tribal communities have battled Trump administration policies. Excavation for the border wall has uncovered indigenous graves, and Taylor McKinnon, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said that Navajo communities in New Mexico have been fighting against increases in gas drilling near Chaco Canyon.

“It’s an area that’s been ravaged by the oil and gas industry and the federal government for decades," he said. "And it’s the people there, the communities there, that have really borne the consequences.” 

Chaco is sure to be on Haaland’s radar.

“She’s familiar with this issue in Chaco, and she’s familiar with this issue of federal fossil fuel leasing, writ large,” McKinnon said. 

Navajo Nation
Chaco Canyon was once a hub of indigenous civilization. Many cultural resources and sacred sights remain.

Haaland served on committees that oversaw public lands, resources and tribes, and should be up to speed on policy. Her appointment was also welcomed by Navajo President Jonathan Nez. He’s hopeful that tribes will be able to influence policy in the Biden administration.

“And that also means being better stewards of the land and I appreciate not just Deb Haaland but the entire energy team that was established and that was announced. I think this is the first step in recommitting to Mother Earth,” Nez said.  

With a pandemic surging and parts of the economy in shambles, Biden will lean heavily on his cabinet, which means Haaland will have to hit the ground running.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The flute music in the audio version of this story was provided by Gary Stoutsos.

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