News Catchup, July edition
Bears Ears co-management; Oak Flat preservation setback;
We’ve been so busy cruising around the Southwest chasing down news that we’ve fallen behind on delivering the news to y’all, so here’s a quick roundup of some of the goings on relating to public lands, water, and the West:
In June, representatives from the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni signed an agreement with federal land agencies to cooperatively manage Bears Ears National Monument.
This is a big deal. When then-President Barack Obama established the national monument in 2016, he also created a Bears Ears Commission, made up of representatives from the aforementioned tribal nations, to serve in an advisory role regarding monument management. When the Trump administration drastically shrunk the boundaries in 2017, he replaced the commission with an advisory committee stocked with livestock operators and other local representatives who had opposed national monument designation. There were no members from the tribal coalition that had originally proposed the national monument.
When the Biden administration restored the original boundaries of the national monument in 2021 and issued a new proclamation, he also brought back the Bears Ears Commission. But the cooperative agreement makes it clear this is a new and improved Commission that is more co-manager than simply an advisory committee. The Commission will (among other things):
Take part in the preparation and implementation of monument management and travel plans;
Help develop educational programs and interpretation material and resource protection and public access plans;
Develop opportunities to engage tribal youth in the culture and traditions of Bears Ears;
Take reasonable measures to protect information regarding sacred sites, traditional ceremonies, and other rituals from disclosure in order to prevent damage or desecration;
Work collaboratively to ensure tribal nations have access to sacred sites and other areas of importance for cultural and non-cultural purposes such as gathering plants and firewood.
“Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future. We are being asked to apply our traditional knowledge to both the natural and human-caused ecological challenges, drought, erosion, visitation, etc.,” said Bears Ears Commission Co-Chair and Lieutenant Governor of Zuni Pueblo Carleton Bowekaty. “What can be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving Tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands their ancestors were removed from?”
In related news, a federal appeals court rejected Apache Stronghold’s bid to block a massive copper mining project proposed for Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, aka Oak Flat—a boulder-studded plateau near Superior, Arizona, that has historical and ceremonial significance to the Apache people and other Southwestern tribes.
The land is currently managed by the US Forest Service and a 1955 executive order withdrew it from mining claims. In 2014, Congress gave a go-ahead to a land exchange that would put the land into private hands and allow mining to go forth. In early March the Biden Administration halted the exchange, but only temporarily. Apache Stronghold, a non-profit devoted to protecting sacred sites, asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to halt the exchange on the grounds that privatizing and destroying Oak Flat with mining and resulting subsidence would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
While the judges acknowledged the Apaches’ deep ties to Oak Flat, two out of three of them determined the exchange and mining would not violate federal law, according to an Arizona Republic report by Debra Utacia Krol. Apache Stronghold plans to take the case to the Supreme Court, which should be interesting given that the court’s majority is both hostile toward tribal sovereignty and friendly to religious liberty — at least when it concerns Christianity.
You might call it the pipe(line) dream that wouldn’t die.
For over a decade, Aaron Million has proposed to suck 55,000 acre feet of water out of the Green River in Utah, ship it via pipeline across Wyoming, and deliver it to Colorado’s Front Range. If you’re like me, you probably thought the whole thing had died a couple years back when Utah refused to grant Million a water right. I mean, how does it make any sense to pull more water out of the beleaguered Colorado River system when the federal government is saying the states need to cut water withdrawals by 2 million to 4 million acre feet?
Logical or not, the project has attracted a major new investor, according to a Chris Outcalt report for the Colorado Sun, and Million is appealing Utah’s water right denial in court.
Million says the Colorado River Compact gives the state of Colorado the right to divert the water in question. But there are a couple of problems. First off, Colorado hasn’t expressed much interest in Million’s project or the water in it. Second, diminishing flows on the Colorado River are throwing the whole “Law of the River” into doubt.
Lake Powell’s water level appears to have peaked for the summer, as the relatively bountiful spring runoff-fed inflows taper off. An optimist would point out that the current level — 3,539 feet above sea level — is a whopping 17 feet above the April low point and well above the 35-foot buffer above minimum power pool water officials have strived to preserve. A pessimist would note that the current level is down 20 feet from a year ago. That means one more dry winter could send levels low enough to force the shutdown of the hydroelectric turbines.
An unusually early and abundant monsoon has brought much needed moisture to many parts of the West, easing drought conditions in parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Northwest. But drought still persists throughout most of the region, resulting in a “biblical” scale plague of locusts in Eastern Oregon.
I’ve found, driving around the Four Corners Region, that the monsoon has been patchy and inconsistent. One area will get hammered by rain, resulting in devastating flash floods, while another area just a couple dozen miles away won’t get a drop of precipitation. In fact, I almost think I’m a moving rain shadow. For the last month it seems I’ve been watching dark clouds build ominously on the horizon—and stay on the horizon, never quite reaching me. It’s eerie.