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After Bears Ears National Monument Shrinkage, The Fight For Redesignation Is Still On


This hour, we've been looking back on some of the developments of 2017 and some of the news stories that dramatically shifted over the course of the year. That can certainly be said of the Bears Ears National Monument. In the last days of his term, President Obama designated this large section of Utah, protecting the land from development. But President Trump shrunk the section of protected land, allowing the state of Utah to lease or sell off parcels to private interests.

We're going to spend a few minutes with Shaun Chapoose, a tribal commissioner for Bears Ears National Monument and a council member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee. He fought for the monument designation a year ago. And when we spoke with him, he started by explaining why he thinks the land is worth protecting.

SHAUN CHAPOOSE: OK. First of all, the region itself, where the monument was designated by President Obama, was always culturally significant. The state of Utah knew it. The local counties knew it. And the tribes knew it. So it's not like an area that just popped out of nowhere.

So first of all, there's still a lot of archaeological remnants left of the Anasazi people, the Navajos, the Ute, the Hopi and Zuni. So it's basically like a landscape that is still in pristine condition minus the people that lived in the area.

I mean, it's like in Rome, you know, when the colosseums were being destroyed - Egypt, the pyramids. Well, this is no different. This is just here in North America. It warrants the same protection as any other national treasure.

SUAREZ: When people from other parts of the country look at this issue, they may not understand just how much of the state of Utah is already under control of the federal government. And this has caused a great deal of tension in the West. Can Bears Ears, in its smaller form, still accomplish what the monument designation was meant to do in the first place?

CHAPOOSE: No because the monument that was designated wasn't actually what we had requested anyway. What people need to understand is we wanted more because the area, like I said, is rich in artifacts. It's rich in burial grounds. And so we actually had to compromise the first time they did the monument.

But I think people need to remember, you know, because that's been the war cry of the West - that, basically, the federal government owns my land. They need to go back into history. Before it became their land, it was my land. And the federal government took it away from me and gave it to them.

SUAREZ: A big part of the argument for transferring land in the West from federal to state control is that the land is rich - there's natural gas, there's minerals - that this will create jobs - certainly something your community is interested in - and create revenue for the state. What do you say?

CHAPOOSE: I think it's a pretty picture that they paint. But when you talk about development, especially in Bears Ears, the oil and gas availability is minimal. The disturbance that would require to get that type of benefit isn't worth the cost of it would to clean the mess up. So I'm not against developing the lands, but at the same time, the state of Utah has proven that it has no regard for the environment in this development.

Where I'm located on my reservation, we have oil and gas development around us all the time also. But you get booms and busts with that type of industry. And so yeah, you may have an influx of people come from the different regions and doing a lot of work and the economy goes up. But eventually, that commodity ceases to be available. It's a non-renewable resource. Then you're stuck with the consequences of that development.

SUAREZ: So what does 2018 hold for you and the other tribal interests here? Is there any mechanism that can be used to fight the redesignation from the Trump administration?

CHAPOOSE: Well, we've already filed. The day that he basically went and made his five monuments to replace this monument, the five tribal nations had already had legal staff prepare to launch a legal attack, which they did. So right now, it's just a wait-and-see what happens in the courts at this stage of the game.

SUAREZ: Shaun Chapoose is a commissioner for the Bears Ears National Monument and a member of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee.

Good to talk to you, Shaun.

CHAPOOSE: Thank you. You have a nice day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.