Federal Bill Seeks First Native American Land Grab in 100 Years

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House of Representatives by Utah Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz seeks to take 100,000 acres of Ute tribal lands and hand them over to oil and mining companies. Will Bears Ears be the site of the next standoff?

The proposed bill also seeks to remove protection from 18 million acres of land in eastern Utah and prevent President Obama from designating the Bears Ears area a national monument.

Adjoining Canyonlands National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Bears Ears is an unprotected culturally significant region that contains more than 100,000 Native American archeological sites. These sacred sites are subject to continual looting and desecration. More than a dozen serious looting cases were reported between May 2014 and April 2015.

The area has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years. Many Southwestern tribes have longstanding connections to this land, including Navajo, Ute and Paiute peoples. The Navajo Nation and the White Mesa Ute Reservation border Bears Ears. Rock paintings and petroglyphs are found throughout the area.

Petroglyphs near the San Juan RiverBears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition

The area is rich in mining deposits including uranium and potash with some deposits of tar sandspresent as well. Oil and gas companies are eyeing the area for drilling. The area around Bears Ears, as well as Canyonlands and Arches National Park, are already dotted with oil rigs. Writing in the May/June 2015 issue of Sierra, Julian Smith reported on an area just north of Bears Ears. “The air was full of harsh mechanical noises and a petroleum smell,” she wrote.

An unprecedented coalition of Native American tribes has come together to protect these lands. They include members of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe. The organization traces its beginnings to Navajo leader Mark Maryboy, who is credited with launching the effort to preserve Bears Ears. A long-time activist and one-time county commissioner, he has tried to broker a deal with a former moderate Utah Republican, but Tea Party conservatives and anti-public lands politicians have killed all prospects of a deal.

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