When President Donald Trump shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument in December 2017, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) didn’t yet have a seat in Congress. But the issue was personal to her then—and it remains personal today.
“It’s my ancestral homeland,” Haaland told Earther of the national monument located in southeastern Utah. “It’s a spiritual place. It’s an important place.”
Now, she can finally do something about it as one of the first Native American women in Congress. On Wednesday, Haaland introduced a bill with Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) to restore and expand the boundaries of the national monument, which Trump cut by more than 80 percent. Former President Barack Obama set aside 1.35 million acres when he created the monument in 2016, but the five tribes with the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition that helped work on its designation originally wanted 1.9 million acres. That’s the acreage this new bill proposes.
“The Hopi Tribe appreciates Representatives Gallego and Haaland’s efforts to protect the sacred landscape that is Bears Ears,” said the Hopi Tribe, one of the coalition’s five tribes, in a statement. “It is encouraging to see Congress working towards safeguarding our most cherished landscapes instead of dismantling them.”
Utah Rep. John Curtis, whose district the monument sits in, is reportedly pissed since he championed the monument’s removal. He, however, can rest easy: While Haaland expects the bill to pass the House—it’s already got more than 70 co-sponsors—it’s unlikely to become law. That requires a partner bill in the Senate and, ultimately, a signature from the president.
The goal, though, is to keep is to keep the pressure on in every way possible. The bill follows a series of lawsuits which sprang up shortly after the re-designation occurred and are still making their way through the courts.
“Just because there is a president in office who essentially has attacked public lands doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying,” Haaland said. “We can’t throw up our hands and not do anything. We have to do whatever we can do.”
The inter-tribal coalition supports the bill, as do environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Tribal sovereignty and the protection of cultural artifacts and dino fossils are key issues here, but so is the protection of public lands. The Trump administration has already opened former Bears Ears lands to uranium and gold mining land claims. And fossil fuel reserves could be next. Last March, the New York Times unearthed emails showing that oil and gas played a key role in the Trump administration’s decision to strip the land of its protections.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee where this bill was introduced, is calling for an investigation into the Trump administration’s decision to downsize Bears Ears. He believes industry’s interest in extraction drove this monument reduction.
“I stand to be proven wrong,” Grijalva told local NPR affiliate KUER. “That’s why we have oversight. That’s why we have those investigations.”
Haaland feels similarly. She doesn’t want to see these lands “auctioned off.” And she certainly doesn’t want to see the infrastructure that’s causing climate change—i.e. oil and gas drilling—ruin the pristine landscape of the region.
“The fossil fuel industry disrupting a place like Bears Ears will not help us,” she said. “In fact, it would hinder our ability to fight climate change.”