Interior Secretary Zinke caught lying about tribal support for his Bears Ears plan

Swift backlash from tribes opposing any plan to eviscerate Bears Ears National Monument

Photo by Tim Peterson

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke built a web of lies yesterday while announcing his recommendation that President Trump eliminate significant portions of the recently protected Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah.

In a call with reporters, he claimed that “talking to the tribes, they’re very happy,” later reiterating that “overall, in talking to tribal leadership… they’re pretty happy and willing to work with us.” In the hours since the press conference call, it has become overwhelmingly clear that could not be further from the truth.

Bears Ears National Monument was protected — after an 80-year effort — at the behest of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribes, all with strong historical, spiritual and cultural ties to the monument. Now, tribes are fuming about Secretary Zinke’s plan to eliminate parts of the 1.35 million acre monument.

The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, comprised of those five sovereign Native nations, responded that shrinking Bears Ears would be a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.”

Davis Filfred, a Navajo Nation Council Delegate, reacted to the notion that tribes are “happy” with the proposal:

“I haven’t been happy with [Secretary Zinke] since day one. I don’t know what that word happy is….We don’t want it to be rescinded. We wanted it left alone. Right now, what I’m hearing is this is only a recommendation. But when they do make that move, we’re ready as a Navajo nation for a lawsuit, and all the other tribal leaders are ready. We have others who are ready for litigation. This is uncalled for.”

Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Utah-based organization committed to preserving and protecting ancestral Native American lands, said they were “deeply upset” at Zinke’s announcement, noting the Secretary failed to listen to tribal members. Ethel Branch, Attorney General for the Navajo Nation, also disputed the suggestion that her tribe was pleased with the plan, noting “our leadership has maintained a consistent position that they support the monument designation. And if there is any happiness, it’s probably that the monument remains intact.”

Secretary Zinke was hoping to blunt tribal opposition for his plan by recommending that Congress pass legislation to mandate tribal co-management of the Bears Ears region. This recommendation echoes an existing Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition proposal and would certainly receive bipartisan support in Congress; however, passing such legislation does not require eliminating parts of the national monument.

Natalie Landreth, a lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund representing three of the tribal nations supporting the monument, called out Zinke’s cynical plan:

“I will tell you that our initial reaction, on behalf of the three tribes we represent, was that this was really just a cynical effort to distract Indian Country from the devastating blow of reducing the size of the monument. The is sort of a carrot approach that if I offer something to sweeten the deal, maybe I can reduce their opposition somehow. But Bears Ears is not for sale; it is not up for trade for a piece of legislation on consultation or management.”

During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Zinke proclaimed his respect for Native American tribes, saying “sovereignty has to mean something,” and promising to allow them to “shape their own destiny.” Unfortunately the review of Bears Ears National Monument has shown that these were hollow promises.

By Greg Zimmerman and Jesse Prentice-Dunn