SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For decades, a public lands tug-of-war has played out over a vast expanse of southern Utah where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive twin buttes bulge from a grassy valley.
A string of U.S. officials has heard from those who advocate for broadening national monuments to protect the area's many archaeological and cultural sites, considered sacred to surrounding tribes, and those who fiercely oppose what they see as federal overreach.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was the latest cabinet official to visit Bears Ears National Monument — and the first Indigenous one.
Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, met with tribes and elected officials at Bears Ears as she prepares to submit recommendations on whether to reverse President Donald Trump's decision to downsize that site and Grand Staircase-Escalante, another Utah national monument.
“I know that decisions about public lands are incredibly impactful to the people who live nearby. But not just to us, not to just the folks who are here today, but people for generations to come,'' Haaland told reporters during a news conference in the town of Blanding. “It's our obligation to make sure that we protect lands for future generations so they can have the same experiences that the governor and I experienced today.''
The visit underscores Haaland's unique position as the first Native American to lead a department that has broad authority over tribal nations, as well as energy development and other uses for the country's sprawling federal lands.
“She brings something that no other cabinet secretary has brought, which is that her Indigenous communities are coming with her in that room,'' said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College.
Miller said the outcome of the negotiations will shed light on how the Biden administration plans to respond to other public lands disputes and will likely impact subsequent conversations with other states on natural resources.
Haaland faces competing interests: Tribes across the U.S. hailed her confirmation as a chance to have their voices heard and their land and rights protected, while Republican leaders have labeled her a “radical'' who could, along with President Joe Biden, stunt oil and gas development and destroy thousands of jobs.
Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said he looked forward to Haaland seeking tribes' input, which he called a “far cry'' from her predecessors in the Trump administration.
He noted Haaland is familiar with the landscape — Bears Ears contains many sites of spiritual importance to New Mexico's pueblos — but acknowledged she had a responsibility to hear from all sides.
“She is the interior secretary for all of us, and that also requires her to engage other groups.”
The coalition wants the monument restored to its original size, or even enlarged, but Gonzales-Rogers said he hoped Haaland's visit would at least be a step toward a more certainty.
“All parties would like to see some permanence, and they don't want it to vacillate between either administrations or political ideology,'' he said.
Prominent Utah Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and new Gov. Spencer Cox, have expressed concern with the review under Biden's administration and demanded state leaders be involved. Haaland met with them, along with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and U.S. Rep. Blake Moore during her visit.
The Utah delegation called on Biden to work with Congress and others toward a permanent legislative fix regarding the monuments' borders and management, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
“Can we find the solutions? I think there is an opportunity for that, to provide the resources that are needed,” Cox told reporters Thursday. “But all of those things can only be done through legislation. It can't be done through an executive order.''
Former President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears a national monument in 2016. The site was the first to receive the designation at the specific request of tribes.
Its boundaries were downsized by 85% under the Trump administration, while Grand Staircase-Escalante was cut nearly in half. The reductions paved the way for potential coal mining, and oil and gas drilling on lands that were previously off-limits. Activity was limited because of market forces.
Since Trump downsized the monuments, more visitors have come to the sites and put natural and cultural resources at risk, said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks.
“Every day that goes by leaves the irreplaceable resources at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase vulnerable to damage or destruction from looting, vandalism or other threats as a result of lack of protective management,” Francis said ahead of Haaland's visit.
Environmental, tribal, paleontological and outdoor recreation organizations are suing to restore the monuments' original boundaries, arguing presidents don't have legal authority to change monuments their predecessors created. On the flip side, Republicans have argued Democratic presidents misused the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate monuments beyond what's necessary to protect archaeological and cultural resources.
Haaland will be a key player in deciding what comes next.
She has said she will follow Biden's agenda, not her own, on oil and gas drilling, and told reporters at a briefing last week that her report to the president will reflect conversations with people who know and understand the area.
The administration has said the decision to review the monuments is part of an expansive plan to tackle climate change and reverse the Trump administration's “harmful policies.''
But Mike Noel, a former state representative and vocal critic of expanding the monuments, said it would be a mistake for Biden's administration to “go back and rub salt in the wounds'' by reversing Trump's action.
He said he fears that not allowing local and state officials to make these decisions will only further divide those involved.
“It's never a good thing when decisions like this are made from Washington, D.C.,'' Noel said. “I just think it's being done wrong, and I hope that the new secretary recognizes that.''
BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — A totem pole carved at the Lummi Nation from a 400-year-old red cedar will begin a cross-country journey next month, evoking an urgent call to protect sacred lands and waters of Indigenous people.
The journey, called the Red Road to DC, will culminate in early June in Washington, D.C., The Seattle Times reported.
The expedition will start at the Lummi Nation outside Bellingham, Washington, and will make stops at Nez Perce traditional lands; Bears Ears National Monument in Utah; the Grand Canyon; Chaco Canyon, New Mexico; the Black Hills of South Dakota; and the Missouri River, at the crossing of the Dakota Access Pipeline, where thousands protested its construction near Native lands.This fall, the pole will be featured at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. A special exhibition was developed by The Natural History Museum and House of Tears Carvers at the Lummi Nation, which is gifting the pole to the Biden administration.
Head carver and Lummi tribal member Jewell Praying Wolf James said he and a team ranging in age from 4 to 70 carved the pole beginning this winter.
They carved the pole one figure at a time, led by spirit, inspiration and dreams, James said. The figures include Chinook salmon, a wolf, a bear, an eagle diving to Earth, and even a child in jail — a reference to children presently incarcerated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
SEATTLE (AP) — The Biden administration has halted its predecessor's decision to sell the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit.
Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell announced Thursday that the federal Office of Management and Budget had withdrawn its approval for the sale, which would have forced the transfer of millions of records to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and Riverside, California.
A federal judge had already temporarily blocked the sale, pending a lawsuit by Washington, Oregon and more than two dozen Native American and Alaska Native tribes. Last month, 25 of the 26 members of Congress from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska signed a letter by Cantwell and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski urging the Biden administration to reverse course.
“While this process never should have begun in the first place without Tribal and local consultation, I'm glad that OMB has listened to local Tribes and reversed their decision to approve the sale of the Seattle Archive building,'' Murray said in a news release. “I will continue working to ensure the generations of artifacts and history stored in the Seattle facility will remain accessible to stakeholders across the Pacific Northwest.''
The records at National Archives facility date to the 1840s and include documents key to the histories of 272 federally recognized tribes in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho. It houses all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest, including military service, land, court, tax, marriage and census documents.
The documents also include records of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. There are 50,000 files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited the presence of Chinese laborers in the U.S. from 1882 until 1943, including photos and interrogations of Chinese immigrants.
Only a tiny fraction of the records have been digitized, and the facility is frequently used for research related to genealogy, land use and water rights, treaties and other historical topics.
Tom Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation near Anacortes, Washington, noted Thursday that tribes have often resorted to the archives to vindicate their treaty rights and their oral traditions. He has researched his own family history there, he said.
“This material is too important and too valuable to leave this area,'' Wooten said. “You have to know where you come from. There's no way folks could go to Kansas City or California to do that kind of research.''
The little-known Public Buildings Reform Board, which was created in 2016 to help sell off surplus federal property, decided in late 2019 to sell the National Archives building under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act. OMB approved it in early 2020.
In a letter to the board Thursday, OMB's acting director, Shalanda Young, said that approval was inconsistent with President Joe Biden's direction that federal agencies engage in meaningful and regular consultation with tribes when it comes to decisions that affect them.
Any future sale of the facility would have to begin with a new process, including tribal consultation as well as a new factual record, Young said.
Given that the 74-year-old building has a multimillion-dollar maintenance backlog and that it sits on 10 acres of prime northeast Seattle real estate with water and mountain views, the federal government might well renew its plans to sell it to a developer.
But Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has argued that the Seattle archives is ineligible for sale under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which exempts buildings used for research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational or conservation programs. The archives are used for research under federal historical preservation programs and to litigate land use, water rights and conservation issues, the state's lawsuit noted.
In a phone interview Thursday, Ferguson said the Office of Management and Budget's reversal was inevitable after U.S. District Judge John Coughenour blocked the sale in February. He called the government's decision to sell the property without consulting the tribes outrageous.
Cantwell said Thursday she hopes that in the long run the federal government can maximize the property's value while also ensuring local access to the records.
“Hopefully we can come up with a more win-win situation, where we can keep the records in the Northwest and do it in a fashion that works for everybody,'' she said.
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday overturned another state murder conviction because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that much of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation.
Chickasaw Nation member Charles Michael Cooper was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the 2016 death of Cindy Allen, who was found strangled inside her burned home in Pontotoc County on land within the historic reservation of the Chickasaw Nation.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled, in what is known as the McGirt decision, that Oklahoma lacks jurisdiction for crimes on tribal reservations in which the defendants or victims are tribal citizens.
The state court has overturned six murder convictions and the manslaughter conviction of a former Tulsa police officer based on McGirt, in addition to numerous other cases.
The Cherokee Nation said earlier this week that it has filed charges in 440 criminal criminal cases based on the overturned convictions and the Choctaw Nation has said it has filed 125 charges in similar cases.
Major crimes, such as murder, fall to federal prosecutors to pursue and indictments have been issued in some of those cases.
Shannon Kepler, the former Tulsa police officer and member of the Creek Nation convicted on a state charge of manslaughter in the 2014 fatal off-duty shooting of his daughter's boyfriend in Tulsa, was indicted in November on a murder count in the case. Nacole Bain, also a member of the Creek Nation who pleaded guilty to murder in the fatal 2018 shooting of an Okmulgee County man, was indicted in December on a federal murder count prior to her conviction being overturned April 1.
A federal grand jury has also indicted state death row inmate Benjamin Robert Cole Sr., 56, for murder in the 2002 death of his daughter. Cole's case has not been overturned, but he is appealing based on McGirt.
State Attorney General Mike Hunter and several tribes say congressional action is needed to allow the tribes and the state to enter compacts to prosecute crimes in Indian Country.