MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has reversed plans to give management of Montana's National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, saying that he is committed to not selling or transferring public lands.
Zinke, a former Montana congressman, told the Missoulian (http://bit.ly/2p0PCNt) in an email that the tribes would still play a “pivotal role'' in discussions about the future of the range, 29-square miles (76-square kilometers) of hilly fenced-in grasslands with 350 bison.
“I took a hard look at the current proposal suggesting a new direction for the National Bison Range and assessed what this would mean for Montana and the nation,'' Zinke said. “As Secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of Interior's resources. I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present and future, which is why I have changed course.''
The refuge run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is located completely within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation, on land the tribes say was taken illegally in 1908, when the U.S. government established the refuge to save bison from extinction.
Four years later, the government paid the tribes $1.56 per acre (0.4 hectares) for the land, which was about $12.50 an acre (0.4 hectares) below the land's value at that time.
In the 1980s, a court ordered the government to pay the tribes $231,000 in compensation.
Tribal chairman Vernon Finley's stopped short of criticizing Zinke's announcement, saying he considered the proposed transfer a restoration of reservation land.
“We understood that President (Donald) Trump and Secretary Zinke himself had promised about not selling off public lands, but from my perspective, that isn't what this is,'' Finley said.
The transfer strongly supported by the tribe was proposed last year when former President Barack Obama was still in office. Under the plan, the Interior Department would transfer the range to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to hold in trust, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would hand over management to the tribes.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said last year they would back the transfer if legislation were introduced in Congress, and the tribes drafted a bill.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group that opposed a previous attempt in 2010 to share management of the refuge with the tribes, sued over the plan. The case is pending.
One of the group's members who sued, Susan Campbell Reneau said she hopes Zinke's announcements ends what she calls “a diabolical attempt to completely change the direction of management of federal public lands.''
Finley, the tribal chairman, said he plans to speak with Zinke and the tribal council about the decision.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Western Democrats are pressuring President Donald Trump not to rescind land protections put in place by President Barack Obama, including Utah's Bears Ears National Monument.
Obama infuriated Utah Republicans when he created the monument in late December on 1.3 million acres of land that is sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings. Republicans have asked Trump to take the unusual step of reversing the designation, saying it will add another layer of unnecessary federal control and close the area to new energy development.
In a letter this week, nine Western Democratic senators wrote Trump to say that weakening protections for Bears Ears or any other national monument would be a direct affront to local communities and stakeholders.
“This is especially true in the case of Bears Ears National Monument, for the Native American tribes who call this living cultural landscape their ancestral home,'' the senators wrote.
The White House has said it is reviewing the decisions by the Obama administration to determine economic impacts, whether the law was followed and whether there was appropriate consultation with local officials.
In an ongoing back-and-forth with Republicans over the monument, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee released documents Thursday to try to bolster their argument that there was adequate consultation. The documents from Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the senior Democrat on the panel, detail repeated phone calls and visits between the Obama administration and Utah's congressional delegation and governor.
The emails show that Utah officials hoped to work with the federal government on the issue before Obama designated the monument in the final days of his administration on Dec. 28. In an email on Dec. 21, as state officials grew increasingly concerned that the designation was coming, a member of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's staff wrote an Interior Department official and thanked her for her time.
“I'm not kidding when I say you're an amazing example of a public servant,'' wrote Herbert's director of federal affairs, whose name was blacked out in the emails.
Democrats said the back-and-forth showed collaboration. “If anyone wants to paint Bears Ears National Monument as a surprise or the product of rushed or incomplete planning, they'll have to explain hundreds of emails and dozens of pages of shared work product,'' Grijalva said.
A spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, fired back. The spokeswoman, Molly Block, said that releasing the documents was a “desperate attempt to create a faτade of local support.''
When the designation was announced, Republicans in the state said it was an egregious abuse of executive power. It was opposed by the governor and the entire congressional delegation, in addition to many local residents.
Herbert said then that the designation “violated assurances made by (Obama's) interior secretary to take into account local concerns before making a monument designation.''
In a statement Thursday, Paul Edwards, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said the documents released by Democrats illustrate that the state, the congressional delegation and the Interior Department worked for three years to try and find a solution together.
“The state of Utah is ready and willing to pick up the baton and work to resolve these issues through a fair, negotiated, legislative process once again,'' Edwards said.
A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Thursday he's committed to traveling to Utah and other states to make recommendations for the president.