Utah congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz are seeking to pass a controversial bill called the Utah Public Lands initiative through Congress. Don’t let the name fool you – this bill is about giving away Native American lands to private interests that will irreparably damage them. The bill, if passed, would be the largest land grab of indigenous land in over a century, according to members of the Ute nation.
This news follows a massive indigenous protest against the Dakota Access pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux that has brought over 100 indigenous groups together in opposition to the project. Reps Bishop and Chaffetz are seeking to convert 18 million acres of public lands in Eastern Utah, including an area known as Bears Ear, into oil and natural gas zones that would be exempted from environmental protections. Of those 18 million acres, more than 100,000 are located on the Ute reservation, which would be taken from the natives and given to private interests against their will. The Ute were not even consulted while the bill was being drafted, despite occupying more than 25% of the area in question. This would only serve to further dispossess a people who have already suffered tremendously at the hands of the US government.
Bears Ear and the other parts of southeastern Utah cited in the bill have been inhabited for at least 11,000 years. Many of the southwestern tribes have a connection to the area, including the Navajo, Ute, and Paiute. Currently, the area is an unprotected culturally significant site which is filled with an estimated 100,000 Native American archaeological sites as well as rock paintings and petroglyphs. As the area is not protected, these sites are often prey for looters.
The Public Lands Initiative, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of naming Bears Ear a protected site. However, the area is also rich in mining deposits as well as tar sands are also present. The areas surrounding Bears Ear and the two national parks it adjoins are already lined with oil rigs. Native Americans have created a regional coalition to protect the lands but attempts to broker a deal with Utah politicians have failed.
Native Americans can’t look to the federal government for help either. The branch of the government that is supposed to prevent things like this from happening is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which claims to help Native Americans protect their lands and resources. However, a recent study found that the BIA repeatedly and intentionally favors the interests of private companies over those of Native Americans.
The BIA was also found to completely ignore cases of Natives who were intimidated into making bad deals with private companies seeking to frack or drill for oil. They also, recently, kept Native American landowners in the dark about the Dakota Access pipeline until the pipeline began construction. As natives can expect little help from the BIA or the federal government, it looks like the next major protest against unchecked and unjust corporate development could very well be in Bears Ear, Utah.
You can sign a petition to help save Bears Ear by clicking here.
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