The Controversy Over the Curtis Bill, Explained

Comb Ridge  Bears Ears

When you've covered a story or beat long enough, every new development becomes interwoven with the past months or years' coverage. A familiar cast of characters reprises their roles; key themes emerge and recur.

And so it was with the recent House Natural Resources Committee hearings on HR 4532, Utah Rep. John Curtis's bill that would codify President Trump's December 2017 executive order shrinking Bears Ears National Monument. On one side: the Utah Congressional delegation, Republicans on the committee, and the San Juan County Commissioners, represented by Commissioner Rebecca Benally; on the other, elected leaders from the five sovereign tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition: The Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe. As has been the case for years, the central arguments focus on tribal sovereignty, local control, and differing attitudes about land stewardship.

First, we'll provide a (brief!) summary that should bring you up to speed on the basics of the bill and what went down in the hearings. Then, we'll drill down to specifics and examine just what it is about the bill that makes it so polarizing.

The bill:

HR 4532, the ‘‘Shash Ja´a National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument Act," refers to the two new monuments comprising the protected land that remained after President Trump signed an executive order shrinking Bears Ears by 85 percent. The bill would:

  • Codify Trump's executive order, eliminating the original 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument established by former President Barack Obama and replacing it with two much smaller monuments.
  • Alter the structure of the groups tasked with developing policies for management of the lands within the monuments.
    • Obama's proclamation called for the establishment of a Bears Ears Commission comprised of one representative from each of the five tribes that in 2015 petitioned the federal government for a national monument - the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe. The Commission was charged with providing policy recommendations and guidance to the employees of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the agencies having ultimate responsibility for managing the land within the monument. 

In response to Obama’s proclamation, the tribes established and staffed the Commission in March 2017; the Commission continues to meet regularly. The proclamation also called for a local advisory committee comprised of elected officials and stakeholders in San Juan County, similarly tasked with providing on-the-ground recommendations for land managers. It has yet to be formed or to meet.

  • By contrast, Curtis's bill calls for the President, in consultation with the Utah delegation, to appoint a group of local elected officials and tribal leaders to a management council. Curtis and Utah politicians have argued that this approach will give tribes "real" co-management responsibilities, as opposed to the advisory role laid out in Obama's proclamation. This serves as a good segue into...

The controversy:

You might be thinking, co-management sounds better than a mere advisory role. Why don't the tribes want this? 

Three reasons:

First, because the two tribal leaders who will serve on the proposed management council are to be selected from the two tribes having reservation land in San Juan County: the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute. By contrast, the Obama proclamation called for the appointment of one representative from each of the tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. The resulting five-person Commission specifically included members of the Zuni and Hopi tribes, both of whom have ancestral ties to the Bears Ears region. The ancient structures and artifacts protected by the original Bears Ears National Monument? The vast majority of those cultural resources were constructed by the ancestors of today's Pueblo peoples, who do not live in Utah but whose ties to the area remain strong. The Curtis Bill also excludes members of the Uintah and Ouray Ute tribe who live in Utah, but whose headquarters lie outside San Juan County.

Additionally, the tribes claim (accurately) that Trump, Zinke, and the Utah delegation will staff the management council with Natives who share their anti-monument views. If the first hearing on the Curtis bill is any indication, they have just cause for concern.

Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, Chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, invited two Natives to testify at the first hearing on Jan. 9; both opposed the monument, and neither was a member of a sovereign tribal government. It was not until House Democrats demanded another hearing on the bill that elected leaders from tribes outside San Juan County, Utah were invited to testify. 

Tony Small, the vice chair of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee, criticized Curtis's strategy thusly: “How would you like it if Russia or France went around the United States government to negotiate with private citizens?” (Quote from an excellent Sierra Magazine piece on the hearings and the history behind them.)

Finally, as multiple tribal representatives pointed out at the Jan. 30 hearing, Curtis did not consult with any of the five tribes about the management council he designed to (allegedly) empower Natives with a vested interest in the Bears Ears region.  This led Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye to state that the monument was tribal "in name only."

About that name:

It's possible that Curtis chose the name Shash Ja´a, which is the Navajo translation of "Bears Ears," to demonstrate respect for the Native peoples of southeastern Utah. It's also possible that the move was a cynical ploy to convince members of Congress and outside observers that the new monument reflected tribal input and knowledge - and that the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the Bears Ears region, supported the bill. Regardless of intent, Begaye said his tribe took offense to the name, saying it was misleading since the Navajo Nation did not formally approve the monument plan.  In addition, the name was also disrespectful of the other four tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

So what's next? 

The bill will be scheduled for a vote first by the House Natural Resources Committee. If the Committee votes to pass it, the bill will go before the full House of Representatives.

What's the timeline?

Unknown, though Bishop has indicated he wants to move quickly on the bills. 

What are the bill's chances of success?

It's hard to say at this point. While there are a number of Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee - Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego, both of Arizona, and Nikki Tsongas of Massachusetts -  who have been outspoken in their defense of Bears Ears, there are more Republicans on the committee, almost all of whom likely will vote in favor of HR 4532. Even if the bill makes it out of committee, however, it may have a tough time making it through the full House where there are Republicans with a more conservationist bent who have to answer to constituents who love their public lands. Its fate in the Senate is even more in doubt unless it is attached to legislation not subject to filibuster.

Stay tuned.